Tag Archives: non-linearity

Crafting Non Predictive Strategy, Part III: Acknowledge the Nature of the Problem

Despite formidable developments in business strategy over the last fifty years, organizations keep being disrupted by events they should have seen coming, but didn’t, or by events they saw coming but were unable to avoid or take advantage of. In 1971, NCR was surprised by the rapid rise of electronic cash registers and lost its leadership of the market. In 2007, Nokia was unable to react to the launch of the iPhone, an event the Finnish firm dismissed as minor, and is now struggling to survive. In 2011, the Arab uprising came as a complete surprise to everybody, not just business and governments but the people involved as well. And the list goes on:  if strategy is about addressing the key challenges an organization face, then the general lack of preparedness (if not prevention of) the economic and political crises that the world has been facing since 2008 is a massive failure of strategy. Hence it’s no surprise that in a survey conducted in 2011 by consulting firm Booz, fully 53% of senior executives did not think their company’s strategy would be successful. Houston, we have a problem…with strategy. Continue reading

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Crafting Non-Predictive Strategy, Part II: Start with who you are

In the first part of this series, Milo and I examined the complexity of nonlinear environments and tried to show how, when confronted with such an environment, energy spent on a deep understanding of the present beats attempts at predicting the future.  Hence our call for a non-predictive approach to strategy.

Nonlinear systems can be found in nature, but they are particularly common and problematic when they involve human issues.  While such human nonlinear systems can display regularities over long time periods, most major political, economic and business issues are essentially nonlinear and permeated by social facts.  What such human-centered, nonlinear systems have in common but which is often overlooked is that one cannot deal with them as if they were natural science problems.  For one thing, and as we have argued in a recent Forbes article with the example of Usama bin Ladin, how you define the issue you’re dealing with depends on who you are.  This is also the reason that “genius” fails.

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Crafting Non-Predictive Strategy, Part I: Deep Understanding Beats Prediction

As Milo and I have argued before, the environments and issues businesses deal with are more complex than traditional strategy models admit.   Business issues today display high levels of uncertainty, they can behave non-linearly, and they can be vulnerable to “Black swans”, i.e. low-probability but high impact events that disrupt even the best formulated strategies.  The added difficulty for strategists and managers is that nonlinear environments often appear linear for an extended time period (think US house prices).  As a result, some conclude that what seems to be an essentially linear pattern (prices fluctuate a bit around a ‘long term trend’ but always rise), are linear in reality – before a radical change occurs that completely disrupts previously assumed patterns (e.g. prices fall dramatically).  In short, people often assume an environment is linear and predictable when in fact the continuity we observe is only a particular case of limited duration.  To make matters worse, with many nonlinear systems change is not nicely spread over the years:  most of the cumulative change occurs in one, single – often dramatic – occurrence.  In the language of engineering, some things don’t “fail gracefully” (e.g. a bridge that breaks suddenly instead of bending slowly).

Not a “graceful failure”.

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China’s Present, the World’s Future, and the Pretense of Knowledge

Last Tuesday I attended the Economist’s Bellwether Europe conference in London.  Several speakers raised ideas that made me want to follow up Philippe’s latest piece “Has China Peaked?”.

At the conference, many speakers and panelist (from regulators like the FSA’s Martin Wheatley, to economists like Roubini’s Arnab Das, to portfolio managers like Blackrock’s Richard Kushel) linked the future stability of the Eurozone and the prosperity of America to the continued growth of China.  Niall Ferguson was even more explicit, saying at one point that “The governor of the PBOC has far more control over the future of the US and European economies than either Ben Bernanke or Jean-Claude Trichet”.  I tend to agree that US and EU economic stability is tied to Chinese growth, but am worried by that fact,  and skeptical about Chinese “control” of their economy either through their Central Bank or through “administrative measures”.

The People's Bank

The image evoked by statements such as Ferguson’s (even though I am sure he is too smart to have intended it) is of a carefully calculating Zhou Xiachuan sitting behind a desk in Beijing pressing buttons and pulling levers – a man in commanding a linear, essentially Newtonian system.  The same tends to happen when people talk about the powers and actions of the Fed and the ECB.  Even so-called “centrally planned” economies don’t work like that.  Economies are not not machines, and they are not linear in the sense that once the behavior of its component pieces are understood individually, one simply needs to add them up to predict – and control via a Central Bank or other bureaucracy – the behavior of the whole.

A point which is not original but which bears repeating because it is so often forgotten is that Economics is not Physics, it’s a “Social Science” (a false metaphor if there ever was one).  As one scholar says “God gave Physics the easy problems” and the behavior of economies is non-linear rather than additive.

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