Beyond Survival: Devising Strategies in an Uncertain
On a rainy ride in from National Airport a few years ago, Peter Sellars, the inspired and still boyish director and producer, asked me what he should talk about at the National Endowment for the Arts Advancement program National Seminar. Knowing his presentation was beginning in less than 15 minutes, and also quite aware that Sellars was a man never at a loss for words, I opined that he speak about his own experiences surviving as an innovative artist. A gale of high-pitched impish laughter from the back seat was followed by, "Survival? Well it may be necessary, but it's not very damned interesting." A few minutes later he exhorted the assembled managers to "Create, risk, and innovate," and to let survival take care of itself.
"We've got to live with chaos and uncertainty, to try to be comfortable with it and not to look for certainty where we won't get it." -- Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox
Cause and effect is dead. We live in a time when leverage is gained through understanding and responding to discontinuities, and goals are achieved not by strategy development but through strategic innovation. A decade ago Tom Peters on the first page of Thriving on Chaos said, "Excellent firms don't believe in excellence--only in constant improvement and constant change -- they cherish impermanence."
The greater the level of unpredictability, chaos, and uncertainly, the greater the need for a declared vision. The stormier the sea the greater the need to stay on course. Visions demand goals and goals require innovative strategies.
Here are some working definitions:
Vision: An articulated view of an improved world and the organization's role in its creation. This improvement may be for the sake of a singular artist in whom certain people believe, or it may be for an entire community for which we embrace change. A vision by its very nature is idealistic; to be continually pursued yet possibly never achieved. Yet in the mere pursuit, much good is achieved; primarily, what we stand for as a group.
Goal: An advancement toward the vision, a celebration of righteous work tangibly realized.
Strategy: The process for working together. The work that defines who we are, together...organizationally.
With a vision in place how are goals set? Generally by announcing more of the same. Methods for creating goals can vary. Some goals are handed down by fiat. Some are set merely by adding numeric increases to past accomplishments, especially when vision is lacking. Often the conversation around goals becomes a time of talking about survival. As Peter Sellars says: "Survival may be necessary, but it's not very damned exciting." Yet, goal-setting can be a time of organizational renewal, a reaffirmation of the vision, coming together around common purpose ... aspirations that if realized advance the organization toward its shared vision.
Five tenets of fruitful goal setting
Strategy is essentially the maximizing of individual competence and organizational potential across time and resources. Strategy is a means by which people may contribute to the results, and while doing so, learn from one another.
The Five Elements of Strategic Innovation
1. Learning is taking place
Much has been written about the need for learning organizations. Andy Grove, CEO of Intel implores us to avoid "the trap of the first version." Do not judge the veracity of an idea immediately upon hearing it. "You can't judge the significance ... by the quality of the first version. You need to draw on your experiences ... have the discipline to think things through." Only through such discipline does the organization amplify the critical thinking of the individual and advance the knowledge base of the organization.
2. The intellectual and emotional capacity of each individual is being amplified
In the corporate realm the old paradigm of organization wealth has been based on the financial assets derived from productivity and profit. For the past century this quest drove competition and the short-term exploitation of employees. "The new paradigm demands we explore a new concept of wealth...based on intellectual capital," say Herman Maynard and Susan Mehrtens, co-authors of The Fourth Wave, Business in the Twenty-first Century. There is a new focus on the intellectual capital that staff and boards provide with their ideas as the real "currency" necessary to achieve the mission. Rofl Osterberg, a major corporate executive in Scandanavia as well as author of Corporate Renaissance, Business as an Adventure in Human Development has led the thinking in the fields of intellectual capital by stating, "We are leaving the old way of thinking with its over-dependence on the logical mind, which has put the planet we live on at the edge of catastrophe. A new kind of thought is awakening, characterized by a balance between thinking and intuition."
3. Emphasis is placed on where roles intersect
Harold Geneen, founder of ITT made numerous contributions to the advancement of leadership. Two of his most profound statements were, "managers must manage" and "divisions do one thing, they divide." The speed of change and the constant need for information demand we pay particular attention to the overlaps and less to the divisions within our organizations. This is where strategy innovation and creative thinking takes place as people can come together and create cooperatively.
4. Ongoing dialogue assures that lessons are learned and risk is rewarded
Nothing is as unforgivable as making the same mistake twice. Yet this happens constantly unless the "learnings" of an organization are harvested and used to nourish the future. The reason strategy exists is because we realize there is a gap between our current reality and the realization of our organizational goals. The question becomes one of how creatively we will fill this gap through constantly devising more innovative approaches. This requires viewing the issues and opportunities from multiple points of view and making choices while continually remaining open to discovering errors in one's own reasoning. Only incisive collaborators are helpful here. " Individual learning, no matter how wonderful it is or how great it makes us feel, is fundamentally irrelevant to organizations, because virtually all important decisions occur in groups." -- Peter Senge, Director of Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Organizations are merely groups of people who need one another in order to act.
5. Leadership is expected of everyone
We no longer live in a world where one may look solely to the boss for answers or motivation. Each individual must take responsibility for pursuing knowledge, insight and possibility; and muster the motivation and courage to take huge risks in devising and implementing strategy. This does not create a leaderless group as much as it creates a group of leaders. We may have experienced this during a moment of crisis. It may have been chaotic and messy. But the objective was achieved. Then what happens? We revert back to our old ways. Waiting for others to set the goal. Waiting. Planning. Fretting. Yet very little doing. Do we fear the chaos or do we fear the responsibility that comes with true leadership.
Beyond required reading, every organization should rent the Hegedus/Pennebaker documentary The War Room, on the first successful Clinton campaign. Chaos, split-second decisions, messiness, debate and argument, data, polls, youth, experience, reality, possibility, vision, passion ... all at once. That is the world of the future organization. Constant innovation in pursuit of a vision. We cannot be prepared; we can only be willing.
Barrentine, Pat. When the Canary Stops Singing--Women's Perspectives on Transforming Business. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993
Handy, Charles. The Age of Paradox. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994
Ray, Micheal and Rinzler, Alan. The New Paradigm in Business, Emerging Strategies for Leadership and Organizational Change. New York: Putnam, 1993
Schwartz, Peter. The Art of the Long View. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Tregoe, Benjamin and Zimmerman, John. Vision in Action--How to Integrate your Company's Strategic Goals into Day-to-Day Management Decisions. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990
Wing, R.L. The Art of Strategy, A New Translatiuon of Sun Tzu's Classic The Art of War.cc New York: Doubleday, 1988.
FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER -- Samuel Beckett
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