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
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.
China has long been touted as the next leading power, and for many it seems that the question is no longer if China will overtake the US but when. Recently, however, a number of dissenting opinions have started to be heard. Economists point to the strong imbalances in China’s economy; political analysts observe that the political and social structure is unstable; human right activists warn of increasing censorship and repression, while historians suggest that, like the USSR in the late 80s, China’s communist regime has run its course and is on an unsustainable path. Indeed, “hard landing” stories about China have started to appear, by Roubini or by Gordon Chang.
Like any such debate, or lack of debate (instead, it is a series of proclamations), positions are often taken being selective about facts, based on false analogies, shallow extrapolations, ideology, or just plain ignorance. This is problematic because regardless of what we think about China, the country does matter to us in many ways. What can we do about this, then?
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).