Strategy as Heuristic (excerpt)

“Corporate leaders are expected to be bold generals who forecast the future, devise grand strategies, lead their troops into glorious battle – and then are fired at the first lost skirmish. It takes a courageous executive to push back against this mindset, admit the inherent uncertainty of the future, and emphasize learning and adapting over predicting and planning” – Eric Beinhocker

<Begin excerpt>

“We may not be able to map the perfect route to the ideal future, but we can often ascertain some orienting principles for navigation. Without trying to predict exactly what forks in that road we will encounter, we can ask ourselves what will help us to make the best decisions when we do come to a fork. When we step back to look at the broader context and the general terrain and options in front of us, we can often come up with guidelines, such as “generally head east”, or “choose the easy roads even over the most direct roads”. A rule of thumb like this really helps when we’re confronted with a choice and want to benefit from wisdom generated when we had the luxury of pulling back and analyzing the bigger-picture context. When we distill that wisdom into memorable guidelines, we can apply them more easily and more regularly amidst the hustle and bustle of day-to-day execution.

This, then, is the form that strategy takes – an easy-to-remember rule of thumb that aids moment-to-moment decision making and prioritization (the technical term for such rule is a “heuristic”). I’ve found it useful to express these decision-support rules in the form of a simple phrase such as “emphasize X, even over Y”, in which X is one potentially valuable activity, emphasis, focus or goal, and Y is another potentially valuable activity, focus, emphasis or goal. Now, to make that useful, you can’t just have X be good and Y be bad. “Emphasize customer service, even over pissing off customers” is not helpful advice. Both X and Y need to be positives, so that the strategy gives you some sense of which one to privilege, for now, given your current context. For example, one of [my company’s] strategies earlier in our company’s development was “emphasized documenting and aligning to standards, even over developing and co-creating novelty”. Notice that both of those activities are positive things for an organization to engage in, but they are also polarities, in tension with each other. Our strategy is not a general, universal statement of value – in fact, if we tried to apply it forever it would undoubtedly cause serious harm eventually. There are times when it is essential to emphasize developing and co-creating novelty over documenting and aligning to standards. But for [us], given our context at the time, and the recent history before that, and the purpose we’re serving, that was our best sense of what to privilege, at least for a while: standardization, even at the expense of pursuing new and exciting opportunities.

Of course, no one was against the creation of novelty – for me, it often feels like the most natural way to operate. For the first few years of our growth, every event or training we did was unique and special, co-created on the fly with various partners who offered to host us and help market. This helped us to explore the new landscapes we were moving into, and it generated a lot of movement and some important relationships. But soon, our penchant for creating new and exciting offerings became unsustainable for that particular phase in our growth. It’s expensive when every new offering is a custom product and each partnership requires hammering out a unique deal. We arrived at the strategy I’ve cited so as to redress the balance, to stabilize the organization and make it more efficient and sustainable. It provided useful guidance and had a focusing effect as we navigated the daily decisions we each faced. And ultimately, the strategy became irrelevant – we had integrated these two poles pretty well and found the harmony between them, and it was time to focus elsewhere.
As an example of how the standardization-first strategy helped: [since I’m responsible for] Program Design in our Education [team], from time to time I’d get an email from someone who had heard about [us], gotten inspired, and now wanted to partner to create a new type of event for his particular business sector. I get excited by opportunities like that, but out strategy reminded me that at that moment in our development, I should instead invest my time and energy in standardizing our existing programs and events – even if it means missing this new opportunity. “

</End Excerpt>

After the tough criticism I gave Holacracy last week, I wanted to use this opportunity to share something about Holacracy from a “glass half-full” perspective. This 5-paragraph excerpt from the book, beautifully describes a rather radical and unique take on what strategy can be.

Strategy as Heuristic (excerpt)

4 thoughts on “Strategy as Heuristic (excerpt)

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