On my Mind
The Nature of “Strategy”
We are in a time when we will hear the word “strategy” inserted into pronouncements by those who try to convince us they have a plan. That they alone can guide us out of the situation we find ourselves in when they know, as we do, that in current reality, it’s nonsense.
Not entirely. Long-term strategy – views over decades – remains vital. The Iroquois would not take any serious decision without debating the effect it might have seven generations into the future.
Our take on strategy of the “return on investment” variety has always been questionable. Great sales tools for the gullible, but mostly of little practical use.
“Strategy” is one of those words that got lost in the last few decades and found itself in very unfamiliar surroundings. Its roots lie in the realm of military command – stratos “multitude, army, expedition, encamped army.” As leadership training sought to treat business as war, it found itself carried along as baggage. It gets added to job titles and projects as a sign of status and mystery and finds itself used and abused by those who don’t understand it.
One person who did was John Boyd, one of the greatest, if least recognised practitioners of the last several hundred years. His expertise was grounded in a deep study across many disciplines, gave us the OODA loop, transformed the whole understanding of ‘Mission Command,” and left all he worked with and spoke to a simple instruction.
“If you’re going to regard my stuff as some kind of gospel or dogma, stop. Take it out and burn it. Now. Instead, gather interesting thoughts from a variety of sources and disciplines, then BE YOUR OWN GURU”Lt.Col. John Boyd USAF.
Boyd described two sorts of strategies. “Grand Strategy” was the overarching aim, simply defined, with no detail, and compellingly clear. “Operational Strategy” was the detailed planning done at the front line by those taking action. The job of the people between the two was to understand the intent, ensure those in the front line understood it, and resource them to do the job. That simple.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve ended up with people, far away from the front line, with little understanding of the reality there, setting detailed strategies to be followed precisely via monitored processes and policed via governance. Whether in politics or business, it’s an increasing disaster because the “front line” is no longer listening, and those issuing the edicts have lost all credibility.
For the first time last week, I did not post a reflection because I was on a farm in Ireland talking with someone whose family has been on that land for hundreds of years. He could talk with authority on strategy based on those timescales. He knows that some of what he plants will work, whilst others will not, and there will be surprises along the way over the next few decades – but his skill is in making sure he is not critically dependent on any one element of his strategy. That way, he fulfils his obligation to the land and those who will farm it after him.
I have also witnessed the opposite – a strategy developed to sell a short-term idea to an audience hungry for returns. It is so dependent on many things happening in just the way they need them to that it is inherently fragile. It’s a great idea but needs time to grow, the right conditions and the care of those with the mindset of the Irish farmer.
It’s a good time to avoid those who offer to develop a strategy for us without being dependent on its long-term success.
The Limits of Design
Design, and its most recent iteration, “design thinking”, represent a vast market and shares many characteristics with its consulting cousin, strategy. Dominated by a few large organisations, staffed by unquestionably bright minds who make their money as expensive organisational pilot fish. Servicing large clients in return for protection and reward, without bearing the burden of responsibility.
Like strategy, it is valuable over very short time horizons but of minimal use over anything other than a handful of years. Both strategy and design are easy prey for dogma, best practice and fashion. They become hubristic and move more slowly than markets, in lockstep with the clients they serve. Natural selection always wins, but not until the client has been satisfactorily and comprehensively exhausted of returns.
Strategy and Design feed off a hunger for the scale that provides predictability and certainty. Scale enables a few people at the top to organise the remarkable talents of those equally few people with scarce skills and capabilities via business models and processes serviced by those educated, trained and rewarded for compliance.
It has defined the industrial period, and now it’s over.
The Power of Conversation
Whilst the disciplines of strategy and design are powerful, they are not processes, they are perspectives. To be useful, they have to serve us, not us them. They are powerful tools in the hands of a master, but they are dangerous when wielded by those who have not taken the time to learn how to use them.
Back to Boyd. He identified five key factors critical to sound strategy, and all relate to the teams that decide them. The first was “Oneness” – a sense of being settled in ourselves and at one with those we work with. The second is an exquisite awareness of what is going on around us. He used the German “Fingerspitzengefuehle” – literally, “fingertip feeling” – a sensitivity to the tiniest changes. The third was agility, the ability to change direction in a heartbeat. Fourth was working relationships – understanding in depth what we expect of those around us and our obligations to them. The foundation of trust. Last was a clear focus of what was being aimed for, so that everybody knew what to do even when things become confused.
At the heart of all these facets is conversation – open, challenging, supportive, curious dialogue that notices everything and leaves no stone unturned or any anomaly ignored for the sake of convenience or speed.
Great conversation is incredibly inefficient but wonderfully effective, and we’ve largely forgotten how to do it.
Conversation has become strangled by agendas, goals, and other things that make wandering off course to examine the interesting an organisational sin.
That’s why we went to Ireland. People who have been having real conversation over Zoom since lockdown, but who hadn’t met each other. Discovering what they looked like released from the little boxes on the screen, but finding the conversation was the same – it had become that good. It has taken two hours a week, every week. Just turn up and say what’s on our minds, what we’re noticing, and listen to others.
It is what comes out of these conversations that inform design and strategy, not the processes. It’s why most corporations’ strategies are nearly identical to each other. It’s much easier to benchmark than do the emotional work of conversation. Inserting expensive PR between the company and its customers to sell a story nobody in the organisation actually recognises in their day-to-day work.
In one of his posts, Sunil Malhotra captured the central issue well earlier this week, and I think Pirsig is right.
“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves. . . . There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Vulnerability of Scale
Scale has transformed our lives in every way, from giving us cheap goods in mass markets shorn of originality, or connection to who made what we buy. Scale was neccessary in order to makes factories efficient, and led to the need for more consumers to buy the goods being made, which in turn gave us “marketing” as we turned citizens into consumers.
We know it’s gone full circle. Consumerism has brought the world to the precipice of human extinction, and we have to find new economic models. Logic and intellect is not enough – we need to accomodate all of our human qualities, our connection to each other, and the world we are part of.
Scale means that the action that take place at the edge is a long way from the centre, where decisions are made. Communication is slow and conversations very different. Everything between the centre and the edge is administration of one form of another and it makes those dependent on scale vulnerable to disruption by those who can move faster and co-ordinate in the way that insurgent groups ran rings round “shock and awe” based military formations.
It is small groups loosely linked to each other whose conversations will influence what happens next, from politics to business. If we’re not part of those conversations, we will find ourselves surprised, and the interesting part is, any of us can start them. there are no experts, no courses, and no certifications.
Anybody can start a conversation.
Conversations often start with simple questions. Here’s a great article from Big Think
Arguments are conversations too. Here’s a guide from the Guardian.
Conversations require we think for ourselves, not follow the herd. Something to think about from Aeon Magazine.
If you want your conversations to connect dots, choosing your friends matters.