Monday, October 26, 2015

Strategy starts with where not why.

It doesn't matter whether you're competing against a foe in a battlefield, or in a game of chess or in business ... strategy always starts with where.

"Where can I move?" is the first question you must ask. To do this then situational awareness (i.e. understanding your environment) is critical. If you cannot visualise (even through mental models) the landscape then you cannot determine "where"Mapping is fundamental to strategy and to organisational learning (e.g. economic lessons and repeatable gameplay in business or battle plans in military history) because situational awareness is. The question of Why is a relative statement as in "why here over there?"

Sun Tzu understood the importance of the landscape and talked extensively about it. Alas, strategy has taken a bit of a downturn in the business world since the art of war was written a few thousand years ago.

"But surely strategy starts with why?" ... no, blind luck and meme copying starts with why. If you cannot see the environment, you'll either do something because others are (backward causality) or you're taking a complete gamble without understanding the landscape. This may pay off but starting with why is anything but strategy.  

"But surely our purpose is why?" ... no, purpose i.e. that which causes others to follow you and provides a moral imperative is an idea. It's either given (as in defence of the realm) or in the world of business it is transient and carved out of past strategic play (e.g. the pivoting of companies through their history). Nokia didn't start out as a telecoms company, it started out as a paper mill then a rubber company ... do you think its purpose hasn't changed because of the choices it made? Today's purpose was a historical heritage of past choices and its future purpose is unlikely to be the same as today. There is no "why" in this sense other than "we arrived here by accident, where next?" and "we wish to survive."

Take Odeo, an MP3 sharing service. Did it stick with its purpose? No, it created Twitter. It created a new purpose.

Take Ludicorp, an online game. Did it stick with its purpose? No, it created Flickr. It created a new purpose.

At some point both groups faced the decision of "why here over there" as in "Odeo or Twitter?" or "Ludicorp or Flickr?" and in both cases that choice was not only a question of different wheres but the answer changed their purpose, it altered their cultural heritage. 

Whilst the art of strategy is deciding "why here over there" and this in turn requires you to understand the possible wheres (i.e. your landscape), the consequence of making a decision can alter your purpose. 

"But they didn't use maps?" ... no, but then again it was more blind luck. They took a gamble in the unknown and it paid off. In military, sometimes things are won by sheer luck. That doesn't mean that maps are abandoned because of some notion that in this case luck worked. In military fields then patterns and repeatable gameplay can be learned - pincer movement etc. The same happens in business, for example the entire cloud field was anticipated long ago and many former giants have lost their position through not understanding the most basic concepts of their landscape. Others have exploited this.

Alas (or maybe this is a good thing depending upon your perspective), most businesses lack any form of situational awareness or mapping. Most don't even know it's possible relying on the pre-map navigational forms of story telling. Whilst there are no sure things in any form of competitive engagement, the understanding of the landscape and improving situational awareness can help swing the odds in your favour. To do this, you have to start by first asking where you can attack and then decide why here over there or there or there or maybe all?

Strategy starts with where not why.