Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strategy sleeps

I think strategy, like breaking up, is very hard to do. Successful leadership demands juggling skills, that multi-tasking thing. Juggling well does not make for strategy. Strategy is hard and yet fluffy, like a dust bunny under your bed. It swirls around when you try to nab it.

Strategy is more of a process than a thing bound in attractive binders or downloadable in .pdf format. The process has much in common with making sausage. We’ve built automated sausage machine-like simulations. Users of these military, economic, and political tools stretch from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue to Fort Leavenworth.

Today we want results. Don’t bore us with the process details. Let’s develop an App, please. Today it’s apparent to me that strategy is beyond a lost art. Strategy is no longer a concept worth discussing. Strategies have now been fashioned into algorithms. The most sophisticated of these serve the god of finance.

Strategy challenges people to see connections where connection is possible and identify gaps. Gaps can be opportunities. Strategy requires us to ask hard questions reminiscent of those Mike Wallace posed. One has to appreciate the present tense of things while backward planning from some definition of success. There can be multiple versions of acceptable success. George Marshall likened strategy to thinking of time as a stream. Two people wrote a book about strategy called “Thinking in Time”.

I studied this book over the course of a year with fifteen other people. We dipped into Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest May’s collection of guided case studies as a sort of hobby in the midst of our regular course work. We came to agree that “Thinking in Time” taught us more than a few things. We even developed a process, our own “sausage machine” based upon the book. The machine consisted of a mind map; a left to right, right to left, up and down mosaic of ideas. It worked because it kept us curious.

A friend eloquently summarized strategy: the orchestration of means in ways to achieve desired ends.

That was then. Financial transactions, driven by the technologies developed by “quants”, outrun the human ability to plan. Intellectual problem solving is an anachronism in this contemporary atmosphere where finance drives all else. Profit is the end. We no longer care about the process.

Public policy, democracy, even institutions like higher education and health care operate within the new cathedral of finance and banking. I’ve shelved “Thinking in Time”. The dust jacket has a purpose now. Those strategic lessons have no contemporary meaning.

Citizen movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street amplify the issues but change will not come from encampments or marches. Change will come when institutions such as universities, health care corporations, municipalities, religious institutions, and sovereign nations fail. Only then will we see the necessity for financial reforms. Until then, banks reign. Until then, strategy sleeps.

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