Milo’s latest advice for investors and business people trying to come to grips with geopolitics is now available on Forbes.com. It’s called “Geopolitics, Investing and the Little Book of Psychic Cold Reading”.
Every time Milo and I teach about how organizations can make sense of their environments, we are confronted with the difficulty of explaining why uncertainty is so different from risk and why understanding that difference matters to entrepreneurs and managers. In this article, we address those questions and discuss the practical implications that flow from them.
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
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”.
Recently I had a discussion with a friend who is a colonel in the Army about the culture of risk among senior officers and, by extension, in management. The culture of risk is an important question for any organization.
To understand the culture of risk, we must first distinguish between two types of risks. Type One risk is where you do something that leads to an error or a bad result. It’s a reasonable assumption that the majority of our time in school and in higher education is designed to teach us how to reduce such risks.
Type Two risk is the opposite, it is the risk of not doing something that could be valuable. Of course, the two are linked: the more one reduces the risk of doing something, the more one increases the risk of not doing something valuable. The trick, unfortunately, is that we tend to focus more on the Type One than Type Two risks. On one level, this makes sense: after all, failure is very visible – a disaster, a lost war, a failed product launch, etc. In contrast, forfeited opportunity is invisible: we do not see what valuable things our caution has prevented us from doing, and no one is punished for not having invented something. Our education, liability laws and corporate governance structure push us towards a culture of Type One risk avoidance, i.e. to reduce the risk of failure (Sarbanes-Oxley anyone?). This obviously is a problem for innovation in the long term, but it doesn’t even reliably protect us. If it did nothing else, the financial crisis that began in 2008 has demonstrated that those institutions entrusted to manage risk failed to do so properly. In short, we focus on risk avoidance at the expense of opportunity creation, and we don’t avoid even risk very well!
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.
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
I have discussed the topic of the use of history for decision makers in a previous post about Richard Neustadt and Ernest May‘s analog framework. Historian Francis Gavin gave a very interesting speech for the Longnow foundation on the same question, but from a different angle. Gavin lays out five key concepts which, if properly understood and employed, should provide a firmer grasp on how historical analysis can be of benefit to decision makers. I would also argue that they can benefit not just the policymakers but also the public at large. These concepts are vertical history, horizontal history, chronological proportionality, unintended consequences and policy insignificance.