Tag Archives: prediction

Making strategic decisions under uncertainty: The case for non-predictive strategy

The goal of strategy is to decide what to do in a given situation to achieve a given objective.  Basically, strategic decisions comes down to the question “what to do next?”. In environments characterized by uncertainty (defined as objective lack of information), this is no simple question, and several approaches are possible to address it.  Two dimensions characterize these possible approaches: prediction and control.

Prediction asks  to what extent does my approach rely on a forecast of the future environment. Strong prediction corresponds to either a planning-type approach – I create a detailed prediction of the future before initiating action – or a vision type:  I imagine the future and I strive to make this vision a reality.  Low prediction corresponds to a more adaptive approach:  I do not try to predict the future environment, but instead I move on and I adapt to changes along the way.
Control asks how I can control the evolution of my environment.  The over-arching assumption of classic strategy is that the firm has little influence on its environment, which is for the most part given (or “exogenous”).  All a firm can do is to find a place in this environment (planning /positioning) or adapt when it changes (adaptation).  Hence the importance of the notion of “fit” that the field insists upon (e.g. Michael Porter in 1996).  On the opposite side of the spectrum, the field of entrepreneurship observes that a firm can change its environment in profound ways, sometimes from an ex ante defined vision, or through the logic of future-agnostic gradual transformation of the environment.  There are many examples of entrepreneurs starting with odds apparently stacked against them and completely transforming their environments:  Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Sam Walton, to name just a few.

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Welcome to Extremistan! Why some things cannot be predicted and what that means for your strategy

In an earlier post about forecasting, I mentioned the work by Nassim Taleb on the concept of black swan. In his remarkable book, “The Black Swan”, Taleb describes at length the characteristics of environments that can be subject to black swans (unforeseeable, high-impact events).

When we make a forecast, we usually explicitly or implicitly base it on an assumption of continuity in a statistical series. For example, a company building its sales forecast for next year considers past sales, estimates a trend based on these sales, makes some adjustments based on current circumstances and then generates a sales forecast.  The hypothesis (or rather assumption, as it is rarely explicit) in this process is that each additional year is not fundamentally different from the previous years. In other words, the distribution of possible values for next year’s sales is Gaussian (or “normal”): the probability that sales are the same is very high; the probability of an extreme variation (doubling or dropping to zero) is very low. In fact, the higher the envisaged variation, the lower the probability that such variation will occur.  As a result, it is reasonable to discard extreme values in the forecasts:  no marketing director is working on an assumption of sales dropping to zero.

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The Fragility of the Future (and Your Strategy)

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.

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Gresham’s Law of Strategy: Why Bad Advice Drives out Good Advice

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

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We have met the enemy and he is, er, forecasting

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.

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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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Has China peaked? An exercise in forecasting using Neustadt and May’s History framework

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?

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