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On craft in strategy

June 1, 2022

“The art or practice of planning the future direction or outcome of something; the formulation or implementation of a plan, scheme, or course of action, esp. of a long-term or ambitious nature. Also: policy or means of achieving objectives within a specified field, as political strategy, corporate strategy, etc.”

Oxford English Dictionary

One of the questions that came up in response to my post of yesterday opening up the whole Estuarine framing of Strategy was just what did I mean by the strategy word.  Hence this post, in my occasional quotation series.  There will be a few more of these in the series, all of which use the Strategy category on the blog for those who want to thread them together.  Now I have several shelves of books on strategy ranging (in the easy to read category) from Mintzberg’s Strategy Safari to some, shall we say, deeply trivial recipe books some of which purport to use complexity theory and a few of which abuse Cynefin.  One of these days I am going to write a post on the ten worst books that seek to claim some authority from complexity theory or cognitive science!  Strategy Safari is one of the most useful, highly recommended and probably all you need to read to get some understanding of the field. After that I’d hit the Military Strategy literature which has a lot more value in many contexts than people understand.  There are some fairly heavyweight books on decision theory and risk which are also relevant but I’ll leave those out for the moment; my library is available online for those who want to peruse it.

Now, in this series, I am trying to work out an approach from first principles based on the naturalising approach to sense-making. I summarised that field in thirteen posts a couple of years ago in what is a proto-structure for the book, or a book at some stage.   Later this year I will need to do some retrospective mapping to other theories but I don’t want to start from there as I think the ontological and therefore epistemological base is too different for this to be an incremental effort. That will be rather like my approach to the various systems thinking methods (and some of their theory) which is a both/and approach not a rejection; I always acknowledge my debt to soft systems for example the LSE labs and so on. My objection is to the homogenisation of any field into one broad category especially when that is linked to evangelical language.

By way of setting the context for yesterday’s post and ones that will follow it I thought I would go back to the Oxford English Dictionary and use that as a stimulus, or an enabling constraint to further elaborate where I am coming from.  Future posts will pick up on specific practices with the odd quotation post to give breathing space. Also to be clear I will post on other topics through this, it won’t be a sequence, I’ve found out the hard way that down that path lies writer’s block.  So this post is a set of ad hoc reflections on four key phrases in that definition which will give me material to build on in the future:

  1. “art or practice”
    In other contexts, I have been talking a lot about the idea of a craft which in some ways is a better word.  It carries the idea of a skill acquired over time within a wider community and a mixture of theory and practice with varying levels of achievement and competence.  So the Craft of Strategy may end up as the title of this series and any subsequent publication.  But the recognition that this is an art as much, if not more than science is important.  The naturalising element of sense-making is about using science as a constraint but also recognises that you can’t use a 19th-century conceptualisation of scientific method to understand, mandate or predict the nature of a human system.  That carries too much ambiguity and uncertainty to allow any level of precision and predictability.  The cliché that no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy is well known and much quoted but rarely reflected in the process of planning; rather than embracing uncertainty the assumption is that planning reduces uncertainty.  Well done it is better understood as knowing what you know, knowing some part of what you don’t know and recognising that there are whole areas where here be dragons and other strange beasts is the only thing you can say (the banner picture illustrates this).  That means fluidity, working with the texture of your strategic landscape, adapting, exapting in context, being aware of manifold possibilities and rejoicing in them.  It is the artistic practice of a craft and requires multiple rehearsals before execution – something the military understands but is rarely applied in other contexts.
  2. “planning the future direction”
    Note that it doesn’t say destination, it talks about direction.  I have long argued, and repeated ad nausium that in complexity we start journeys with a sense of direction we don’t try and achieve goals.  We remain open to the evolutionary opportunities of the here and now, the present and the adjacent future states.  When I go walking I plan in advance for the conditions, I assume I may get lost, I think of alternative routes and what level of equipment I need to survive a night in the open and so on.  Yes, I have a route and a destination, but I assume variation of necessity and also curiosity.  The planning process needs to assume, and welcome the emergence of novel opportunities and threats and build the right level of resilience that encountering the same is more opportunity than a threat.
  3. “the formulation or implementation of a plan”
    We have two things here – the formulation and the implementation.   The process of formulation is important in terms of gaining a diversity of input, but also of engagement of all those who will be involved in the implementation. Far too many organisations create their strategy and associated plans and then descend as did Moses from the mountain to issue their commandments.   From my perspective planning, like scenario creating which is a supporting method, is a continuous process of engagement with the wider environment as well as the resources under our command.  I may talk about the confusion of command with dictat in a future post but for the moment it’s not as authoritarian a concept as people think, especially if it is linked with role rather than person, or god help us, charisma.  Implementation is path-dependent and needs to allow for variation – the more engaged those involved in the day to day micro-realities of making it work, the more resilient the overall process.  The methods of formulation and revision are directly linked to the efficacy of the implementation.
  4. “a long-term or ambitious nature”
    There is nothing wrong with ambition in itself or of thinking in the long term, but if you start there you will have issues aplenty.  Setting ambitious future objectives in a complex system is to doom yourself, in advance, to varying levels of disappointment and disillusionment.  Understanding where we are and understanding where we don’t want to go or what we don’t want to be are better starting points and more likely to gain consensus and commitment.  Creating ambitious goals for a future state works in certain restricted contexts.   Kennedy’s declaration at Rice University that, by the end of the decade, the United States would land astronauts on the Moon. is one such and oft-quoted.  People forget however that the science of this was resolved, it was now an issue of engineering and resourcing and there was some safety margin.  In effect, the problem and goal were constrained to the point where achievement was highly probable.  Compare and contrast setting goals on eliminating poverty and doing something about climate change and we get very different.  It’s almost like an arc from the complex to complicated in Cynefin where a specific goal belongs on the right and the left requires more ambiguity and possibly a different time scale.  To express a desire by the way can be ambitious and can entail planning, but that is not a goal.

So that’s it for now, some repetition in a different language if you read yesterday’s post.  I plan to keep to that definition, with some modifications.  Future posts – probably spread over the next month or so, will expand on this and as I say I’ll link each to the last as I progress which allows me to post on other subjects in-between.   I have a particular irritation with the lack of epistemological awareness and humility in some well-meaning attempts to focus on psychological safety which are becoming what they criticise so that may be up next.  I’ll also be at HTLGI for the next few days so it’s equally if not more likely that I will blog on what I am learning and disputing at that event.


Banner chart is cropped from “Kaart van de landen rond de poolcirkel met de drie reizen van de Nederlanders” 1598, Arnaud A.J. Pistoor, after Baptista van Doetechum, 1878 used under the terms of the Rijksmuseum open data policy

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