In a previous article, we discussed how, when facing an uncertain situation, a deep understanding of the present beats prediction about the future. One tool that Milo and I developed for strategists to think in detail about the present – in other words to answer the pretty basic strategic question “What is going on?” – is a refinement of a framework developed by the historian Ernest May and political scientist Richard Neustadt. We call it the “KPUU framework”. It demands strategists answer and drive towards discussion (and perhaps agreement about) four simple questions about a situation.
I have a strategy lesson for you
Read our latest piece on Forbes here.
In it, we argue that how an organization perceives competition or reacts to a disruption in its environment depends on its identity. Hence, before you start trying to understand them, try to understand yourself first.
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Posted in Our work featured
Tagged clayton christensen, disruption, Forbes, identity, Intelligence failure, Kodak, Osama bin Laden, Richard Holbrooke, Sam Walton, strategic surprise, strategy, Walmart
Today I was reminded of the perils of forecasting while reviewing a Department of Defense document, the Joint Operating Environment 2010.
“JOE 2010″ as it’s called, is designed to provide the various branches of the US Armed Forces a joint perspective on likely global trends, possible shocks and their future operating environment. If you’re interested in geopolitics and strategy, I recommend that you take a look.
Apart from its inherent interest, JOE 2010 opens with a defense planning timeline that business and financial strategy practitioners – and anyone who consumes their work - would do well to bear in mind. I have reproduced it verbatim here:
1900 If you are a strategic analyst for the world’s leading power, you are British, looking warily at Britain’s Age-old enemy, France.
1910 You are now allied with France, and the enemy is now Germany.
Posted in Case study, Theory
Tagged black swan, China, Defense Planning, DOD, forecasting, France, Geopolitics, Germany, grand strategy, Internet, JOE 2010, Korea, NATO, non-predictive strategy, prediction, strategic autism, strategic surprise, strategy, UK, USSR, Vietnam
Near the end of a seminal essay on strategic surprise, Richard Betts writes, “The intelligence officer may perform most usefully by not offering the answers sought by authorities, but by offering questions, acting as a Socratic agnostic, nagging decision makers into awareness of the full range of uncertainty, and making authorities’ calculations harder rather than easier.” I believe that the same should be true for corporate strategy consultants: often their job is to make long-range calculations harder rather than easier.
Why then, is the opposite so often true? In a world in which surprise, disruption and the unanticipated are rife, why do strategists who promise to make calculations easier rather than harder often succeed? I think a phenomenon that I call of “Gresham’s Law of Strategic Advice” is at work.
E pluribus unum
Posted in Theory
Tagged BCG Matrix, Betts, Cicero, complexity, forecasting, Gazit, Gresham, Integrated Strategy, non-predictive strategy, Porter's Five Forces, prediction, strategic surprise, strategy, uncertainty, Value Chain Analysis
It’s become commonplace to hear, including from my fellow academic colleagues, that we academics write articles in journals that nobody reads. Students and participants in executive programs, we are often told, want practical tools that they can apply immediately in their job, and they have no patience for theory. It often goes to the point where we are asked not so much to teach as to get participants to talk about their favorite topic, ie themselves, and lead a class discussion on this anecdotal basis supported by some multimedia slides while students are transfixed by their twitter account. Some schools have even acknowledged this and claim that they don’t teach, but develop what’s already inside participants. Put otherwise, bring your own food: we repackage what you know already and you pick up the bill. The idea that we as teachers may, at some point, introduce some theoretical content increasingly seems suspect and the sure sign of out of touch academia trying to influence a world they are said not to understand. What do eggheads know about business? The idea of teaching, that we could impart some knowledge, but also exert our professional judgment on what we should teach to whom seems preposterous and a sure sign of academic arrogance. I disagree. I teach, and I make no apologies for it.
Many people are either beginning their holidays or are already in the midst of them. If you’re the type of person who reads a blog like this, you probably already know what you’re hoping to read on your break.
Therefore, I thought I’d try a different approach and offer a summer watching list rather than summer reading list. This list recommends three videos that you might consider for your travels or during your “down time”. All address different aspects forecasting, uncertainty, strategic surprises and decision-making. When you feel like a break from reading, give them a try.
Posted in Methodology & Tools, Theory
Tagged forecasting, foxes and hedgehogs, Gavin, Geopolitics, intelligence, judgement, non-predictive strategy, Saffo, strategic surprise, strategy, Tetlock, Use of history
There is no doubt we are terribly bad at forecasting. Even the smartest among us are. Even the best and the brightest, whom we have tasked to save the world from financial annihilation, are. Take Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 2004, he declared, in a speech ominously titled “The Great Moderation”: “One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility. This […] makes me optimistic for the future.” You might want to read the full transcript of the “Great Moderation” talk here because it is for a fascinating reading on how wrong experts can be at forecasting. And it’s not just Ben. In fact, political, economic and business histories are littered by forecasts and predictions that turned out to be ridiculously wrong. From the commercial potential of the Xerox machine or of Nespresso, from the possibility of heavier than air flight to the market for mobile phones, from prosperity at the corner of the street to Japan as number One. Our hopelessness at forecasting is a confirmed fact.
The fog of war, a long 2003 interview of Robert S McNamara, shows that how one frames an issue has an influence on how a question can be solved. As soon as they got engaged in Vietnam, the US presented the conflict as a fight between freedom and communism. This happened in the late fifties, after China had become communist and right after the Korean war, in a context in which the communist world seemed to progress inexorably. The domino theory, introduced by the Republican US president Eisenhower in 1954, stated that once a country fell and became communist, neighboring countries also would. Hence it became crucial to defend any country facing a communist insurgency. As David Halberstam mentions in his book “The best and the brightest”, the US national context also played a role later in the Vietnam process: Harry Truman, Eisenhower’s Democratic predecessor, was accused during the cold war to have “lost” China in 1949 and to have been weak against the communists, particularly during the Mccarthyst period. A longstanding reputation of “Democratic weakness” persists to this day as a result. In the early 60s, the democrats were still traumatized by these accusations that were systematically used by their Republican adversaries. This is the initial cognitive frame with which the Vietnam question was analyzed by President Kennedy’s administration. Right from the beginning then, the administration was prisoner, without being aware of it, from a frame that was in effect imposed by their adversaries. Despite their doubts and mounting skepticism, they would remain unable, right until the very end, to get rid of it.
Posted in Theory
Tagged decision making, disruption, framing, GM, non-predictive strategy, Robert McNamara, Sarah Kaplan, sense making, strategy, turbulence, uncertainty, vietnam war
A central tenet of innovation research is that firms often fail to act on a disruption that threatens their business, and falter as a result. A case in point is AT&T, the 120 year-old subsidiary of Bell Telephone Company, child of Alexander Graham Bell, an American icon.
In 2005, AT&T was sold to SBC Communications. It was in a way a family story, as SBC Communications started in the mid-eighties as the smallest of the seven “baby bells”, the companies created after the regulator ordered the AT&T break-up. But what a story !
AT&T introduced many innovations, and not small ones: first commercial radio (1922), first television transmission (1927), first mobile phone (1946 !), first transistor (1947), first telecom satellite (1962). AT&T has long been a giant of the economic landscape: one million employees at the beginning of the 80s, and not so long ago a market value of $180 billion (1999).