Designing a disruption

Most new strategies are really the same old deal. Most innovations merely sustain the incumbent enterprises. Most new products and services are only incremental improvements. It takes a mind shift to come up with a breakout hit that actually moves the goal posts. We need to step back from the mindset that gets tasks completed and then plans how what to do next. We need to deploy a different kind of thinking.

Here's seven ways to change our minds to come up with breakout strategies:

  1. Thinking like a caregiver: When we're thinking like an inventor, we're too close to what we're inventing. There's nobody we're considering  how they differ with our own outlook, assumptions and preferences. When we think like a caregiver, it's no longer about us or our invention. We become attentive to those we're caring for, caring about and caring enough to make a difference. The value of our efforts is in the eyes of the beholder, not how we see our conduct. We're attuned to those whom we want to value our efforts.
  2. Thinking about resolving issues: When we're thinking about making improvements, we stick with what's already working. We adapt, add on to or fix the thing that already exists. When we think about resolving issues, the existing thing may be part of the problem, making things worse or ignoring an issue. Resolving issues can have a bigger impact than incremental improvements. It can generate more buzz, buy-in and uses than added features or changes in specs.
  3. Thinking about functionality: When we're thinking about artifacts, we pay attention to superficial appearances. We improve the look, package and "design" that gets added on. When we're thinking about functionality, we can come up with "101 uses for a dead cat". We see how to "kill two birds with one stone" and to create tools which serve several purposes. We questioning what a design is good for, how it works and how it gets into trouble.
  4. Thinking through the processes: When we're thinking of things, we're dealing with what's static, stable or even stagnant. We assume it will be the same tomorrow and design accordingly. When we think through processes, we're in tune with what's changing, evolving and transitioning. We're aware of phases the processes go through and the ways they're affected by contexts. We align our design with those processes and break into bigger impacts.
  5. Thinking of cycles: When we adopt straightforward explanations, we believe we're making things happen by cause and effect. We misdiagnose any non-linear situation that may come back to haunt us, get fed by our attention or spawn chronic problems. When we're thinking of cycles, we watch for how to benefit from initiatives coming full circle. We notice all the vicious and virtuous cycles in play. We see how to get self-reinforcing dynamics working in our favor.
  6. Thinking about flowing: When we believe life is a struggle, we take pride in our striving. We're attracted to uphill battles and show off how difficult it was to achieve our results. When we think about flowing, we see how the results we want can fall into place. We set-up others' successes without knowing how we will benefit from them. We live in a state of wonder where right conduct, timing and proportion comes to mind as needed.
  7. Thinking with paradoxes: When we're thinking with categories, something is one thing or the other, but not both. We rule out the winning combination, pass up exploring the intersection and miss out on the best of both coming together. We we think with paradoxes, it's two sides of one coin, parts of the whole and essential to a total solution. We include what others exclude and break out of the paradigm of partial solutions. 

One way to follow this advice and change our thinking is to make it easy on ourselves. First we write down, mind map or dictate what we're already thinking. Then we recognize which kinds of thinking we're doing. If any of the thinking plays into sustaining and incremental changes, think again. Write down another column on the same page, expand the mind map or record a second viewpoint. I find this is much easier that getting it right the first time. We allow for the process of changing our mind in stages.


Moving the goal posts

When we enter a space with the goal posts already in place, the incumbent enterprises appear to be winning big time. There's no obvious way to beat them at their game. They not only play by the rules, but define the game to be played. They seem to have all the advantages while us new entrants are undeniably shortchanged, inferior and late to the party. They work their deal for a staggering number of customers who appear to be smitten with the way business gets done. The goal posts are set in cement and all the movement in the space goes for that goal.

Upon closer examination, these incumbents and their hordes of followers are in some kind of trouble. Their game cannot go on like this. It's coming time for a reversal where it's exposed how the incumbents are shortchanging their followers, inferior to some of the new entrants and missing out on the next party. The trouble they gotten themselves into may show up as:

  1. passing on soaring costs while delivering less value for the money spent (think higher ed tuition & fees, cable TV rates)
  2. shooting their own messengers who bring news of customers' rampant dissatisfaction and unmet needs (think Wall Street financiers, losing politicians)
  3. forcing customers to buy into feature creep and excessive sophistication (think software developers, conventional auto model years)
  4. making customers jump through more hoops and endure increasing inconvenience (think cell phone contracts, health insurance paperwork)
  5. punishing the customers as if they are the real enemies (think credit card penalties, medical testing requirements)
  6. misrepresenting their offer and exaggerating their value (think for-profit colleges, loan sharks)
  7. exploiting a captive market and price-gouging their customers (think college textbooks, academic journal subscriptions)

When we recognize any of these kinds of trouble, it's time to celebrate their goal posts being set in cement. There will be no end to incumbents playing their game to the bitter end. Meanwhile, new goal posts can be located where it makes no sense to them and poses no threat to them. They won't get it until it's too late. The trouble they're in will keep them distracted and devoted to trying to overcome their setbacks.

As new entrants, we're free to move the goal posts. We can out-maneuver the incumbents' persistence, like dolphins encircling a shark. Their troubles become our opportunities to do a better job of providing value at a fair price with added convenience, more responsiveness and greater understanding of customers' concerns. The opportunities appear so obvious to us, we wonder why the incumbents don't get it. However, if they got it, they would not have those troubles in the first place and their game could go on indefinitely. They're the ones bringing an end to their control of the space. Their troubled incumbency invites new players to change the game and throw the next party.

CC Photo by lopolis


Being really different

Any effective, competitive strategy aims to be exceptional. If it comes across as similar to rivals, it fails to stand out from the crowd of copy cat imitators. Yet, we're deeply afraid of being really different amidst pressures to conform, fit in and toe the line. We instinctively crave acceptance by our herd, solidarity with our tribe and immunity to  their rejection. We often assume that we'll get ignored, shunned or dismissed if were too different. We hurt our own chances of acceptance if we're so weird that our "customers" don't get what we're trying to say, deliver and get to happen.

When what we're offering appears too similar to our rivals' value propositions, we've set up population ecology dynamics. We will experience "survival of the fittest" while customers, journalists, suppliers and the labor market all function as our predators.  We'll be faced with over-populated spaces where we get lost in the crowd and vulnerable to local extinction.

When we're really different, we create protected niches for our kind of deal. We do our deal in ways that helps others do their deal too. What we offer lets our recipients offer it to others. We set up the equivalent of replicator genes in our product/service mix. We give the gift that keeps on giving. We become a breeding ground for a new species that thrive while rivals barely survive.

Umair Haque suggests we become really different by following "Strategy's Golden Rule": "What your fiercest rival does badly, do incredibly well." That will be really different from our rivals. In Competing for the Future, Hamel and Prahalad encouraged us to be really different by:

  1. getting to the future first while rivals wait for the future to arrive to make a safer change
  2. learning faster from our strategic alliances and collaborations while rivals conduct "business as usual"
  3. cultivating core competencies while rivals cultivate efficiencies and leaner operations
  4. leveraging apparent disadvantages while rivals play to their own strengths

These are all ways to do exceptionally well whatever rivals do badly. The approaches recognize opportunities to try smarter while most are simply trying harder to complete, play by the rules and chase after incremental improvements. Each require that we have a vision for the future to co-create with those we serve and find will reward us for our efforts. We'll gain lots of fans while getting shunned by envious rivals. These fans will replicate our value in their own contexts and communities. They will appear valuable thanks to us.


Getting others to join

When we've got a cause, project, group or community, we will want others to join our deal. A few will already be waiting for an invitation and leap at the chance to become a participant. Some of the others are hesitating until there is enough social proof to jump on the bandwagon. These two camps can be enrolled by simply making a good offer, putting out an enticing invitation or delivering a valuable experience. The word will spread and joining our deal will catch on like wildfire.

This is a long-shot strategy because it expects people to share common interests which will remain stable for an extended period of time. This strategy relies on creating superior features and benefits that appeal to large numbers of like-minded individuals. It fails to appeal to people who are disinterested, already invested elsewhere, turned off by previous experiences or looking for variations on the commonly accepted deal. It misses any moving target that requires keeping sights on where unfolding changes are headed. As I explored previously, this strategy can also kill the viral launch.

An enrollment strategy becomes more effective by going after more diverse, special interests presumed to be in flux. It enacts a paradox of broadening the offer's appeal by going after more incompatible and evolving interests. It outgrows merely formulating an effective strategy to give strategies to others, get strategies from others and co-create strategies with others. Here are three of the opportunities to give others a viable strategy.

  1. Those who are heavily invested in other commitments may need an exit strategy. They need to feel like they are right to be where they're at, while experiencing the tension of missing out on something valuable. They need a path to move forward without "throwing the baby out with the bath water" or "killing the goose that lays the golden eggs". Abandoning ship won't work for them any better than remaining stuck onboard a sinking ship. Offering a middle way will look to them like an effective exit strategy.
  2. Those who been outcast, excluded or disregarded will need a migration strategy. They will likely be stuck in misery, feeling sorry for themselves and seeking commiseration. Nothing will look appealing, inviting or useful to them. They need to feel understood, respected and validated. Once they get back the feeling of standing on their own two feet, they can take a stand in favor of joining. They will see a way to migrate from misery to satisfaction. 
  3. Those who have been burnt by previous commitments will need a turnaround strategy. They will be facing their past, predicting more of the same old story, and blind to the changing opportunities ahead of them. They need to start where they're at, regain a sense of direction and restore their desire to make progress. An encounter with someone who's not "booking their next guilt trip" can get them off their own case of self contempt, regrets and worries. They will then make the switch from "no" to "yes" and from "backwards" to "forwards" movement. 

When we give others an strategy like these, we give more than that. We send a message that we see them much like they see themselves. We get the experience they are creating. We relate to them in a way that suggests how joining us will serve their interests. They become enrolled in ways that set them up to enroll others. We plant a seed that grows beyond what we can do personally.


Evolving into P2P strategies

Over the weekend, I finished reading a wonderful new book: What's Mine is Yours - The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers show us how we're actively migrating away from our excessively ownership-oriented economy. Michel Bauwens and Massimo Menichinelli raised my curiosity about this book which is deeply aligned with the P2P Foundation's trajectory. This morning I've been visualizing how P2P strategies emerge from the widespread, personal realizations of surpluses which can be shared, swapped, rented or redistributed. As I see it, realized surpluses is a highly evolved condition which results from previous phases of economic development.

Exploitative strategy: When something new becomes available for consumption, there are shortages due to many factors. Production and distribution capacity may initially be small. Access to constituent elements may be limited. Talent or expertise for creating it may be in short supply. Any of these factors create the possibility of exploiting the demand for the offer with higher prices, restricted access, or imposing terms.

Extortive strategy: As more supply gets generated, privatized interests in profiteering seek to create an illusion of ongoing or new scarcities. They may create a window of opportunity to be closed after a short time period. They may create planned obsolescence or undermine backwards compatibility with previous versions. This forces the buyers to ante up for the latest or vanishing offer.

Competitive strategy: As an abundance of supply gets produced, there are rival offers to outwit. There are many ways to be superior or different which necessitates the consumers shopping wisely. This induces a consumer culture where massive amounts of time get spent learning what's available, sorting out conflicting claims, identifying desired attributes and acquiring the latest, greatest thing. This overemphasis on purchasing yields a decline in personal satisfaction, economic sustainability and community vitality.

P2P strategy: Anyone who has over-consumed may eventually realize their own surplus of goods, tools,  living space or other resources. With the facilitation of their trust among strangers, awareness of availability and access to convenient outlets, widespread sharing takes hold. Underutilized things get transformed into convenient access, less consumption, supplemental income and vitalized communities. Consumerism erodes and collaborative dynamics takes it's place.

This is very good news for all of us inclined to save the planet, revitalize communities, increase consumer justice and/or reinvent capitalism. Ownership breeds surpluses, sharing and reduced consumption.


Opportunities to give

We often formulate strategies to GET more customers (fans, friends, subscribers, clients, patients, projects, etc.) revenue, visibility, or resources. We're thinking we'll have to give some time, money or services to GET what we're pursuing. So we figure we've balanced the equation of giving and getting. We not getting what we seek for free or giving away our deal for free either.

This equation is changing before our eyes. We're formulating more strategies to GIVE. Some are giving back after earning large sums of money. Others are giving a version of their product/service for free to create the following that migrates into paid versions of the offer. Some are giving away their talents to build reputations for serving, caring, knowing and collaborating effectively. Others are giving time and efforts to get familiarity, practice, connections and experience within a domain they seek to work in.

All this giving involves a different drive from strategies to get what we seek. Giving involves intrinsic motivations (self motivation) since there's no immediate reward to chase after. The giving process pays in ways that others cannot see or understand. We're being our selves when we give in these ways. It pays to be transparent about our process in order to be more trusted.

Opportunities to give will show up on our radar when we know of people and their situations in detail. We will see what is particularly needed, not working or getting left undone. We will discern how we can lend a hand, make a difference and ease others' burden. The way we jump in will get their attention, respect and appreciation. We won't need to sell our expertise or our capabilities. Those will "sell themselves" by how they make the difference, take effect or impact the situation. We will deploy an indirect strategy that gets us rewarded intrinsically immediately and extrinsically in the long run.


Questions of strategy & identity

Who do you think you are to be deploying a clever strategy? What's gotten into you to think you can succeed by planning ahead, assessing your risks and improving your chances? How can you be yourself and also deploy strategic thinking when you're faced with opportunities or obstacles?

These are questions in the intersection of strategy and identity. When we formulate strategies while disregarding our identities, we usually set ourselves up for failure. The incongruence between our way to succeed and who we are results in our sabotaging the planning and/or execution. We try to get where we want to go, but end up nowhere or somewhere else.

When strategic thinking seems like a big struggle, it seems that we already have to much on our plate to consider "identity issues". We get overwhelmed by considering all those questions to come up with a winning strategy. It may even appear to our agitated outlook that addressing our identity will weaken our position, make us vulnerable to setbacks and fall short of competitive advantages. In other words, identity issues usually appear self-indulgent and excessively introspective. However, when we can get around that obstacle in our thinking, we become free to explore those questions in the intersection of strategy and identity.

When we're deploying a clever strategy, we've identified ourselves as winners. We validate our ambitions as worthy of success and support. We see the impact of our succeeding as good for ourselves and others. We see the value in winning to our self-confidence. We expect to be more courageous, resourceful and spontaneous as a result.

When we're strategically assessing opportunities, risks and rewards, we've identified what we've got working in our favor. We think we can overcome our hesitation, past history and other hang-ups by becoming more strategic. We own our capabilities to think strategically as if it's "what we do" and "who we are".

When we get what differences it makes to combine these questions of strategy and identity, we're being ourselves to go into that intersection. There's no role conflict or opposing urges to protect us from selling out, being enslaved or getting stepped on by others. We can be ourselves while being strategic - no problem!


Got a winning strategy?

This morning I'm full of questions to help you get into thinking strategically without any advice from me. Take a look:

  1. Got a place you want to get to that's better than where you're at right now? Got a feeling of what it will be like to be there? Got ideas about what difference it will make to you and others to be in that place? If so you've got a mission in need of some effective strategies.
  2. Got some opportunities to make a move toward that place? Got a clear path, allies to help you get there or a map of the territory? Got ways of seeing the familiar in a unfamiliar way or lenses that reveal more than others see? If so, you've got a chance of succeeding at getting there. 
  3. Got some resources to help you get to that place? Got the time and energy to take advantage of those resources? Got your mind set on making this a priority over other pursuits? If so, you've got some strengths working in favor of getting there. 
  4. Got some obstacles in your way as you move toward that place? Got some ideas for getting around them, defeating them or diminishing their effect on you? Got ways to exploit the predictability, obvious tactics or blind spots of those obstacles? If so, your strategy may respond effectively to whatever adversity you encounter.
  5. Got some vulnerabilities that others could exploit? Got some awareness of your own fixations, insecurities and patterns of self-sabotage? Got some ways to turn those weaknesses into hidden strengths and surprising maneuvers? If so, your strategy can delude the opposition to become over-confident and indifferent to you.

Got all five sets of questions answered adequately? You've got a winning strategy.


Culture eats strategy

Any strategy is a commitment to what is going to happen. A strategy is built upon projections, assumptions and yet-to-be-proven premises. There's no way a strategy can leave everything up in the air and make a move toward a desired future. The role of improvising, that I explored on Friday, must be partial, not comprehensive. Sustainability requires lots of stability and continuity, as well as adaptability and spontaneity.

This underlying set of commitments makes strategies extremely edible to a variety of cultures that impact the success and survival of an enterprise. This pattern of "culture eating strategy" is most evident at the aggregate scale of industry players, but it also applies to us individually.

The difficulty with addressing this issue is how invisible culture is to each of us. We get captivated by our own cultures. We take them for granted and assume there's nothing to question about their influences on us. It's in that way that they begin to nibble on strategies and eventually eat them for breakfast lunch or dinner.

Strategies for breakfast: The consumer culture is aware it's a new day. With all the new toys and tools buzzing about, it's time for a sunrise breakfast. The glut of innovations, welcomed changes and trends make it easy to devour slightly obsolete product and service strategies with caffeinated gusto. The high churn world of new fads and faces gets easily made into toast.

Strategies for lunch: The incumbent culture of established enterprises, industry standards and barriers-to-entry -- eagerly chows down on start-up strategies for lunch. For incumbents, it's the middle of the day with no sunset anytime soon. The incumbent culture seasons large helpings of new value propositions, business models and market niches with snarky cynicism about what's "realistically" in-demand, marketable and profitable.

Strategies for dinner: The internal, bureaucratic culture of established enterprises consumes their own strategy changes for dinner. The end is near - just as they fear. It's time to dig in their heels and protect their fragile business-as-usual. No cost-cutting, right-sizing or increased efficiencies will pass the test of "invented here" or "good for job security". New strategies are seen as "dead enough to stick a fork in them" before they're ever announced by top execs as "the only way to survive".

With three different cultures functioning as hungry predators, strategy formulation needs some heavy-duty biomimicry in order to survive the jungle out there. Besides the conventional fight or flight, there's camouflage, deterrence, evasion, stalking and coordinated flank attacks.


Improvisational strategizing

There's a time for making big plans and a time for winging it. The trick is to know which time it is right now. Corporations, institutions and NFP's may have departments for formulating strategies. They will say it's always time for making big plans because their paychecks depend on it. However, it's time for improvisation when situations are in flux.

Real Time Strategy (RTS) games are my favorite genre of the games I play on computers. Playing them teaches me, when scheming how to obtain higher scores or reach higher levels, that any big plans I concoct are doomed. The games have enough AI built in to detect my predictable conduct and then throw a monkey wrench into my "best laid plans". Games help us evolve into resilient strategists amidst turbulent situations. We learn to wing it in ways that work. That's very different from acting carelessly or hopelessly.

Chapter Six of Garr Reynold's first book: Presentation Zen, he reveals the wake up call he got in this regard. Working for Sumitomo in Japan in the mid-90's, he encountered the case-by-case approach used by managers. This contradicted his fondness for goal setting and executing plans. But as he became involved in designing presentations for clients, he realized the wisdom in relying on improvisation. His appreciation grew to include much more complexity, variability and unpredictability in clients, their messages and their audiences. He became a better designer by letting go of preconceptions, plans and big ideas. He learned to empty his mind and let what comes to mind serve the present situation.

This week on the Harvard Business Review blog, Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote: Adopt a Cow - Strategy as Improvisational Theater. When actors depart from scripts or jazz musicians mess with the sheet music, they do what we need to do when improvising strategies. Kanter explored this in her recent book: Evolve - Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow. She gives us lots of links in her blog post to further this idea of winging it effectively..

One other resource for improvisational strategizing is a book by Rob Austin and Lee Devin: Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work. I found this book to be chock full of great ideas. Here's a few worth considering as we become more improvisational:

  • relying on emergence
  • replacing sequential processes with iterations, cycling
  • turning the concept of control upside down
  • embracing uncertainty instead of protecting against it

Now let's see if we can make up today as we go along.


Improving the feasibility of strategies

When we're utilizing our strategic thinking, it's easy to explore questions of feasibility. We want the strategies we're formulating to be doable and their intended outcomes to be likely. When strategies prove to be infeasible, they may be too challenging, costly, time consuming, over-reaching or long ranged to get accomplished. Their intended outcomes may be too far-fetched, dicey or speculative to get realized. Working on the feasibility improves our ability to execute and succeed while taking risks.

Feasibility is often a question of balance. Here are some of the tradeoffs involved when formulating more feasible strategies:

  1. How much short term "fire fighting" to include with long term "fire prevention"?
  2. How many ambitious undertakings to pursue weighed against the dangers of biting off more than we can chew?
  3. How many people to get involved while being wary of setting up scattered efforts or huge coordination issues?
  4. How much effort to put into making things happen compared against seeing the trends to align with and letting helpful changes occur on their own?
  5. How direct to be in confronting obstacles weighed against becoming too obvious, aggressive or antagonistic which can make the obstacles worse?
  6. How long to persist with a disappointing course of action while being cautious not to dig a much deeper hole for ourselves?
  7. How often to question our strategy's feasibility without falling into stagnation induced by too much introspection?

Each of the questions offers no easy answers. They call for knowing our situations with great insights, multiple perspectives and acceptance of contradictions. When we becomes stressed, singled minded and very determined, we're poised to undermine the feasibility of our strategies. There's no may to make effective tradeoffs while wearing blinders, adopting tunnel vision and fixating on single issues. Feasibility gets improved by spending time above the level of strategic thinking.


Reading strategies in use

There's so much to see when we watch another person, team or enterprise execute it's strategy. We can see more than those who are caught up in their strategy. With enough experience to recognize patterns, we can see what they're missing, over-emphasizing and downplaying. We can catch the contradictions between what they claim is their strategy and what other strategy is actually reflected in their conduct.

The more practice we get reading others' strategies in use, the better our chances become of detecting our own. We can question the approaches we're taking without stirring up tons of anxiety. Rather than assume we're doing the best we can under our circumstances, we can consider reformulating our strategies. If we can see ourselves through others' eyes, we will notice more of what we usually taken for granted. We will welcome questions like the following to get a good read on our own strategies in use:

  1. What are we relying upon as contributing factors to our success and how reliable are these supports?
  2. What are we thinking the customers (users, clients, etc.)  will value, buy into and appreciate enough to tell others?
  3. How close is our thinking about perceived value with those who's thinking we're counting on to appreciate our strategy?
  4. How different is our strategy from those we're getting compared to in the selection process by potential customers?
  5. How difficult are those differences between strategies to understand, accept, find uses for and tell others about?
  6. How obvious are our strategies to others who are judging our determination, insight, innovation and concern with others' interests?
  7. How subtle are our intentions to rivals who could want to copy our innovations, imitate our strategies or match our offers?

These are difficult questions to answer when we're caught up in doing the best we can with what we've got. We don't want to go there and think about strategic alternatives. That's why it takes practice reading others strategies. It becomes a routine we can execute with little anxiety. It becomes an outlook we accept as useful for becoming more successful. Then it becomes something we can do for ourselves too, like it's no big deal.


Far-sighted victories

Short sighted victories are common experiences in political, business and military campaigns. The future appears to be in jeopardy which preempts taking a long view of the situation. "Desperate times call for desperate measures" even though those acts of desperation will end up costing later in a big way. We use lots of metaphors to characterize these errors in strategic thinking:
  • won the battle but lost the war
  • cured the disease but it killed the patient
  • threw the baby out with the bath water
  • robbed Peter to pay Paul
  • cut off their nose to spite their face
  • sabotaged their success with their need to succeed at all cost
  • proved to be their own worst enemy
When we achieve far-sighted victories, we take a different view of short-sightedness. We see both sides of it. It's apparent to us how it's costly to ultimate victories but beneficial to immediate survival. We find other ways to stay in the game than short-sighted victories. We let the adversity gain some ground to set up its own downfall, setback or other consequences. We work with the overall system which closes every loop to maintain equilibrium. We see how vengeance comes back around to haunt the attacker and some versions of letting go work in our own favor.

When we can formulate far-sighted victories, we see what the larger system wants. We get a read on how it's evolving from exclusion to inclusion, from oscillation to dynamic stability and from vicious to virtuous cycles. By working with that system, we go where it's headed instead of contesting it's opposition. We join the big picture and let the small-minded players suffer the consequences of going against that vast system. We "resist not" and "let both be as they are", allowing for the system to win in the end.

As we work with the larger system, we stop reacting to what happens. We respond to the larger context, upgrades and chain reactions. We make choices about how to see things and what they mean. We change the diagnosis of those alarming symptoms to consider the underlying dynamics and hidden solutions in use. We choose our battles rather than fighting what's immediately in our face or on our case. We anticipate the "bad karma" of opposing the larger system. We foresee how their vengeance will come back to haunt them, give them a taste of their own medicine and return the favor of their mistreatment. We get out of the way of what they have coming to them, rather than deliver it ourselves. We let the system close the loop and carry on with its own beneficial evolution.


Formulating multifaceted strategies

Anytime we put all our eggs in one basket, we've jeopardized our chances for strategic success. We're over relying on one strategy -- as if the future is a well-known fixed target. We delude ourselves that the future will fit our predictions when we put numbers to our forecasts. We create the illusion of specificity, accuracy and predictability. We're thinking about meeting goals, rather than solving the problems that arise.

When the targeted future is moving around in fits and starts, we need a multifaceted strategy to succeed. We cannot get there on a straight and narrow path. We need to consider lots of different aspects of the future such as:

  1. which appear stable due to dynamic equilibrium, maintaining balance among several influences
  2. which are actually stagnant or stuck and due for disruption, in spite of seeming like the "rock of Gibraltar" at the moment
  3. which are in constant flux due to a lack of organization, routines, structure or oversight
  4. which are changing in response to changing contexts, situations, pressures or expectations
  5. which are following linear sequences of stages, procedures or developments
  6. which are complex processes which produce surprising outcomes from familiar components
  7. which are mirrors of how we see them, showing us our biases and displaying observer-dependent properties

When the future is a moving target, we always have lots to learn. Our multifaceted strategy needs to anticipate how we will continue to discover what's changed and incorporate those changes into our trajectories. We cannot learn what's changed when we've already made up our minds, established our targets and switched over to tactical thinking. Our only hope is to know what we don't know and to not know more than we know at any moment.


Switching over to strategic thinking

We've all got success routines. We do what we always do and it turns out like we intended. Sadly, we've also got failure routines that keep us trying in hopes that we could get a different result from taking the same approach again. Neither of these routines involve strategic thinking. All they require is "tactical" or "operations" thinking.

When we bring strategic thinking to our success routines, we've got to tolerate our messing with something that's not broken. We risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Strategic thinking questions what we're intending, how we expect to get it, what we've got to work with and what's interfering with all that. We go from inside the box where we're playing by the rules to exploring outside the box where we play around with changing the rules. We switch from changes getting overruled by our need to succeed to changing being the whole point of strategic thinking.

When we find we cannot get into our strategic thinking, we're usually afraid of something. We are thinking in rigid categories, divisive dichotomies and literal reactions. There's no messing with the meaning, reframing the evidence or redefining the initial problem. We stick with the obvious in order to stay out of trouble.

When we can think strategically, we've cleared out our anxieties and apprehensions about pending threats, enemies and interference. We've freed ourselves to explore possibilities without shooting them down as dangerous or unrealistic. We've opened our minds to a panorama of fascinating unknowns. We're allowing ourselves to make useful mistakes and learn from the resulting consequences and feedback.

Strategic thinking feels very differently than tactical success routines. We are less nervous and more creative. We're enjoying the process as well as the results. We're learning new things and making more sense. We've changed our minds for the better and taken advantages of this realm of reformulation.


There's nothing to it

When we coping with a flawed strategy, we're not getting the results we want. An effective strategy seems like a very big deal to us. If it weren't for others succeeding at this, it might seem completely impossible to have intended effects of people, situations and outcomes. Our experience thus far is telling us we cannot get what we want, to go where we want to or to realize the happy ending. We are a long ways off from there being nothing to the art of realizing effective strategies.

Formulating effective strategies takes practice, once we've accepted that it is personally realistic, accessible and desirable for us. We get good at going there. We learn the drills of reading the situation for opportunities, taking our attention off of rivals and rethinking our advantages. We learn from trial and error what works for us, what backfires and what does no good at all. We find we've got hidden talents we were unaware of previously. We discover we're not as capable of some routines as we presumed. We get good at assembling all the essential pieces into formulating strategies.

Once we've gotten good at strategy formulation, we need to be on the lookout for getting too good. Expertise is often inflated into hubris, arrogance and conceit. We become too smart for our own good. When these bubbles get burst, we realize what's missing in our outlook. We see the error in our one-sided ideas, extreme desires and excessive efforts. We become receptive to benefiting from paradoxes.

With practice and self awareness, we become empty. We know ourselves and the others involved without fear, labels or putdowns. We value our curiosity, innocence and openness. We experience there being nothing to formulating effective strategies. They come to mind when we're of no mind to make a big deal out of it.


Taking a strategic position

We often find ourselves in a position of getting compared to others. We may compare favorably or make others look better in contrast to ourselves. When comparisons put us at a disadvantage, we face the question of how to improve ourselves. It's tempting to become perfectionistic and want to become superior on every basis for comparison so we're unbeatable. This hilltop position is usually unattainable or extremely vulnerable to getting knocked off. A strategic position chooses our battles for favorable comparisons instead of trying to win every match.

Conventional strategic thinking characterizes the space for comparisons in only two dimensions. Every rival is positioned in this matrix to identify futile quests for dominance in occupied positions and available niches for differentiation in open positions. It becomes possible to discern how rivals have "raised the bar" of minimum standards to qualify for comparisons in this space which positions some rivals as "off the map". It may become evident how every rival has settled for "industry standards" that make it possible to introduce a game-changer which redefines how comparisons get made.

In 2005, our thinking about strategic positioning get dramatically enhanced by Kim and Mauborgne in their book: Blue Ocean Strategy - How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Rather that position ourselves in two dimensional space, they introduced a strategy canvas approach. Each rival gets visualized with a value curve of positions taken on a long list of factors. The authors suggest taking one of four different actions with every basis for comparison (p. 29):
  1. Eliminating factors that the industry takes for granted
  2. Reducing factors well below the industry's standard
  3. Raising factors well above the industry's standard
  4. Creating factors the industry has never offered
To grasp what a difference it makes to utilize a strategy canvas, imagine you are competing for a contract as an employee, freelancer or consultant. If you assume the space is defined by a two dimensional comparison of industry experience and price, you can be beat by those with more experience who are also willing to work for less money. However, with a long list of factors in the comparison, you may become superior in how quickly you learn, who you already know on the inside, changes you've prepared for that no one has experience with yet, and how well you work with other people. Your "value curve" could appear far superior to those who merely beat you on price and industry experience.

There's another improvement in strategic thinking I recommend when considering how to take a strategic position. Imagine there is a river that will take you where you want to go with very little effort on your part. All you have to do is go with the flow of one good thing after another. There are four positions to take in this river:
  • dead in the water - standing in the river like a stick in the mud, going nowhere in order to be in control of what happens
  • swimming upstream - going against the river, thriving on adversity, being proud of overcoming obstacles (even though they're created by heading in the wrong direction)
  • pushing the river - turned in the direction of the flow, while assuming nothing happens without making it happen, assuming the water is moving because it's getting pushed
  • carried by the river - letting the flow show you what to do, how much to do, what order to do it in and when to do it that works out to be strategically perfect timing, proportion and balance to sidestep rivals and be successful.
This river is filled with processes to be trusted, aligned with and appreciated. They give us what we need right now once we understand how to work with them and open to their potential contributions to our strategies.


Above the level of strategic thinking

There's a level above strategic thinking which makes our strategyzing more effective than focusing entirely on strategies and tactics. Because this higher level is more vast and inclusive, there are many ways to give it a name. Here are five characterizations that I use to describe this level:
  1. Meta-level strategic thinking - When we simply consider the relative position of this higher level, it is meta to the level of strategic thinking
  2. Ocean-level outlook - Within the analogy of dolphins teaching us strategic thinking, the ocean also has a more inclusive point of view that looks after the surviving and thriving of the carp, shark and dolphin species, much like the Commissioner of a professional or Olympic sport cares for every win/lose game, not for which team wins one contest or the entire tournament.
  3. Panoramic vista - When we can see the forest of all the trees or the terrain with all the roads visible, we are on a mountain top or flying over the landscape, much like our outlook when considering different intentions, forecasts and assumptions.
  4. Keeping the mission in mind - When we know why we're pursuing a strategy, we've not lost sight of our mission, guiding purpose or meaning for our dedication to results.
  5. Providing visionary leadership - When our foresight shows us where we're headed, we can take an enterprise into the future with great aim, priorities and purpose which provides a framework for strategy formulation and implementation.

Over the years, I've researched this level extensively. This morning I made a pass at capturing what all goes into this level above strategic thinking. I came up with four vast spaces to be throughly grasped, mapped and factored into strategies:
  • Systems in play: What things are out there (and in here) which are connected, networked, looped and inter-dependent? How are they interacting, effecting each other and depending on each other? What else can become a factor in sustaining or breaking connections such as repercussions, side effects, fallout and blow back? What outcomes can emerge from this complexity, fall out from the interactions or synergize from the mutual benefits?
  • Processes unfolding: What pairs are keeping things in balance while oscillating between extremes? What changes are coming about through phases of growth, refinement or developmental progressions? What could emerge as a discontinuous change, disruption of the status quo or unexpected invasion? What processes show signs of self organization, having lives of their own and defying the law of entropy?
  • Futures over the horizon: What's coming that we cannot see yet, but can anticipate? What could be taking shape, judging from these early indications, warning signs or bell weather changes? What could catch most off guard, defy their predictions or show up like a black swan?
  • Functionality in use: What's already working, yielding benefits or producing results? What improvements are feasible in view of this functionality? What possibilities become evident by considering how the current arrangements are effective, viable and useful? What solutions beyond the current ones could evolve by pragmatic efforts?
As we cultivate this level above strategic thinking, our outlook has evolved dramatically. We see clearly which intentions to embrace that call for reformulated strategies to realize them. We see what's coming to prepare for it and act as if it's imminent. We see what processes can be aligned with and better utilized. We see so much which proves essential for formulating effective strategies.