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Strategy Shifted

I’ve been doing a lot of noodling about strategy. As I have been trying to articulate what I see as a fundamental shift we need to make in strategic practice, visit I have been trying to steer a course between two cautions: Matt Milan’s contention that strategy (as we have known it) is dead AND Roger Martin’s long asserted view that strategy as a practice is about determining “where to play and how to win” (recently expressed here).

Matt attacks the waning paradigm of strategy that emerged from statistical and computational approaches developed during WWII. I call this dominant paradigm: “strategy as ballistics”. It is about targets, precision, force, yield, efficiency and efficacy. It is almost (if not entirely) about the question of HOW we reach an objective.

Roger’s approach, which I think is a harbinger of an emerging paradigm, is by contrast, about the WHY of strategy. Even though his twin questions focus on the WHERE to play and HOW to win that he considers to be the proper norms of strategic practice, it is essential to his view that these are norms, intended to guide action, rather than questions of fact. In order to answer such questions, at least implicitly, we must have a sense of the WHY we would answer either question one way or another. Without recourse to higher order values, in other words, Roger’s WHERE & HOW questions are useless.

So, if Matt’s right, that what I call strategy as ballistics is dead (I think this ought to be true, but I suspect the news of it’s death, like Mark Twain’s, is perhaps premature), AND Roger is right that we cannot do strategy or act strategically without a sense of purpose, a conviction of WHY we act, then the question on my mind is WHAT DOES THIS PRACTICE LOOK LIKE? and as a secondary matter, WHAT SHOULD WE CALL IT?

Before I offer a hit & run suggestion about the answer to those questions, let me offer two empirical examples which I think pose real problems for a conception of strategy as direction, which here, Saul Kaplan offers up as a kind of North Star theory of strategy. One is the public global company, Google, and the other is the global public model of political society we call democracy.

First, Google. Now, I have started to wonder of late whether Google is even a business at all in the accepted sense of the word. Of course, it is a legal entity (probably a corporation) and it operates (at least partly) guided by a set of (fairly?) well understood financial goals. But what is the nature of GOOG? To test your theory here, what would you say that Google’s direction is? I find this almost impossible to answer, not only because the answer may be subject to change, but because I’m not sure that we have a very good understanding what the “object” named Google IS. But whatever it is, I challenge anyone to apply the concept of direction to its (implicit) strategy.

Second, in the case of democracy, (and let’s just take the narrow case of the United States), it is at the very heart of the design that the system not only allows for many directions too be pursued, but even allows that they may be contradictory. The point of the doctrine of freedom of speech stands as one example of this. The thin area of normative agreement that keeps people from killing each other in the streets (mostly) is very hard to consider a direction, in Saul’s sense.

OK, so here’s my hypothesis, anything that is exposed to dynamics of complexity and the causality of scale systems can no more have a direction than do quarks, OR that direction are just as helpful as the “flavor” theory of quarks, whose “directions” are: up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom. In other words, we need a more powerful theory of strategic practice that the one the idea of direction can provide.

Back to GOOG and democracy. Here are two assertions that I think are true about each: one, that the constant (desired/optimal) state of the system is volatility rather than equilibrium; and, two, that there are enough strategic actors in such systems that I think we have to let go of the idea that strategy and leadership are strongly connected, or at least accept that this connection is not what we are used to thinking of.

I think we need a concept of strategy that allows for emergence as a core dynamic. This is not to say that we do not need goals. Here, I think I agree with Saul completely. Setting goals, is indeed an important task of leadership. But, of course, strategy focused on goals gets you right back to the dilemma of “setting strategy one tactic at a time”.

So, what is the name of the post-ballistic conception of strategy? I’ve been testing candidates for a while, and just last week, I think I finally lit on the one I am prepared to bet on. I am calling it strategy as FLOW. I’ll have more to say about it soon, but for now, thanks to Saul Kaplan, Matt Milan, Roger Martin and many others, I’ve been given a lot more to think about.

Nota bene: This post started life as a WAYYYY too long comment to this post of Saul Kaplan’s.

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