Business schools have been peddling strategic planning for 60 years or more. (Harvard Business School was founded in 1908, so the concept may even go back to that time.) A good deal of the conceptual ideas are said to have been borrowed from military planning. This origin story is illustrated in terminology such as “the battle for dominance” in markets or industries, or “defending market share”, or in language concerning “missions”, and ideas about a company’s strategic weapons or strategic arsenal.
More significantly, the concepts of strategic planning reflect the old-fashioned economics of equilibrium, of market structure and industry boundaries. It’s an approach based on statics and balance. Firms are advised to position themselves within a market map or industry map, often depicted as a box, and to mark out territory for which to fight over with similarly equipped rivals. They are advised how to fend off attacking forces.
It’s all sounds very World War One: massed armies facing off across a flat battlefield, guns drawn and cannons loaded and at the ready. Generals at the apex of the pyramidal hierarchy of command issuing orders to the lower-level officers and the troops.
Business is nothing like this, of course. Economists, led by those of the Austrian school, now recognize that the economy and the economic environment in which businesses operate is ever-changing, roiling and swirling in dynamic re-orientation and re-adjustment. The economy is an ecosystem of entrepreneurial projects, and, as a result of the trillions upon trillions of exchanges and interactions, adaptations and adjustments that take place at increasing speed across an expanding geographic playing field, there is no predictability to the outcomes and no possibility of control of the ongoing processes.
Strategy and planning are misguided attempts at prediction and control. There is great hubris involved: that accomplished strategists deploying advanced mathematics and sophisticated intellectual tools can overcome the uncertainties that baffle and defy lesser minds. Business schools that promise to coach managers in this alchemy can charge very high fees for the chimera of certainty. But their promise is empty. It can’t be kept.
What’s the alternative to strategic planning?
What’s the alternative? As always, there is a combination answer from the identification of the applicable theory, and its implementation in practice.
First, business practitioners must clear their minds of the memes of prediction and control over future outcomes. To do so, they can study and master complexity theory. This body of analysis has established that the outcomes of economic systems are emergent – unpredictable, even random. Or, as the mathematicians and computational modelers put it, non-linear. They are not the result of the interplay of variables in an equation. The key to understanding complex systems is to analyze them at the level of the individual – such as a single consumer – and their interactions with other individuals. The smallest geographies, most local neighborhoods and individual units provide the relevant measurements and data. This is the opposite approach to the grand sweep of global or market strategies and resource planning.
The second step in the escape from the tyranny of planning is to adopt the mindset of ignorance: to be open to the reality of not knowing and not being able to predict. The management method to employ is “explore and expand”. Because the most successful initiatives can not be identified in advance in the ever-changing marketplace, businesses act to ensure they have a sufficient number of exploratory initiatives to search for routes to growth and customer satisfaction. Those explorations that demonstrate promise can be expanded via more investment to more geography, wider reach, and greater impact. Agile businesses keep a continuously updated portfolio of initiatives that are exploratory and capable of expansion, and the composition of the portfolio represents the business’s health. A business is an ecosystem of experiments and initiatives and projects, all at different stages of maturity and development. The capacity to add new projects while growing or maintaining those that have proven their worth in the marketplace is the indicator of a vibrant business model.
Jeff Bezos calls it “wandering”:
wandering in business is not efficient … but it’s also not random. It’s guided — by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and powered by a deep conviction that the prize for customers is big enough that it’s worth being a little messy and tangential to find our way there. Wandering is an essential counterbalance to efficiency. You need to employ both. The outsized discoveries — the “non-linear” ones — are highly likely to require wandering.https://www.fool.com/investing/2019/04/11/jeff-bezos-explains-why-wandering-is-key-to-amazon.aspx
Historically, strategy has been a time-consuming act of comparative statics based on data, trying to identify a future state of a business and how to attain it from a starting point in the past or present. Planning has been a static act of resource allocation, in which business units and divisions compete for budgets and then defend them aggressively against change.
Both of these activities are detrimental to business success, which requires adaptiveness to continually changing market feedback and changing circumstances. Adopting the explore-and-expand mindset can be both freeing in the creation of more options for business action, and accelerating in bringing new growth pathways to the fore.