Strategy and Tragedy – Reflections on Through the Looking Glass

Someone used that phrase this week – Strategy and Tragedy. It was a chance meeting, an introduction — but the phrase made it memorable. Beyond the sound of it, which I loved, there was an idea that merited thought. I also liked that it was done in very good humour. As always, behind the humour, there’s something real and insightful. Humour is one of the ways we react — and cope with painful situations.

When a phrase sticks with me, I know there is a reason. Like many people, I pick up on comments that are part of my own personal zeitgeist. They are part of a question or issue that we have been working out in the back of our mind, something that’s troubling us — or to continue the pain motif — they touch a nerve somehow.

That can be painful. And for me, strategy is painful. Now that’s funny, considering that strategic consulting is the way I’ve chosen to make my living. Yet, when you understand how my mind works, it makes a lot of sense.

I got into strategy by the back door. While I love to think about and discuss issues, what really drives me is results. I like to see accomplishments, achievements. But in order to have accomplishments, you have to know what you want. As someone who is driven to results, I’ve always been able to see my goals very clearly. In my early career, I was often given troubled projects and I made a name for myself getting them back on track. IT? Business? It didn’t matter. I loved a problem. Interestingly enough, most of my successes came from establishing some goals and a sense of direction.

Without clear direction, there might be lots of action, lots of effort, but little of it was focused on the real problems. Even for those where the effort was great, the phrase “madly off in all directions” often came to mind. In reality, the world often seemed mad.

For someone like me, the challenge was simple. I needed to get people to see the true problem and once they got that, they’d see where they needed to go.

One way to make the point was humour. I’d show cartoon pictures like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland . I’m sure you’ve seen it. The famous picture of the cat grinning in the tree, and the equally famous conversation between Alice and the cat. Alice asks:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –‘ said Alice.

Then it doesn’t matter which way you go, ‘ said the Cat.

That’s how I got into strategy. This example showed precisely what I saw as the problem.

In fairness, that’s how strategy was taught at the time. It was, what I now refer to as gap consulting. I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere. Gap consulting shows a current state — where we are today. It has a future state which shows where we want to be. the middle has the options, actions, projects or whatever that take us from the current state to the future state.

A lot of consulting that is based on that model. I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. I was very proud of it — still am to some degree.

But I’ve also had my share of frustrations with it. Given my need for results, it didn’t always yield the results that I wanted. It got somewhere, but it wasn’t always the knock it out of the park that I’d hoped. Funny, as I re-read this famous quote to work on this article, I’d forgotten the rest of the dialogue:

“– so long as I get somewhere.” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.

I should have known better. My first degree was in English Literature. And Shakespeare was all over this problem – as always. Hamlet says the famous words, to be or not to be and states the problem as clearly as anyone every could. Then for the remaining four acts, he demonstrated how hard it is to take action.

Strategy and tragedy.

Therein lies one of the real problems of a lot of gap consulting. That middle part — the action — is harder than it seems. I remember a client listening patiently to our description of the strategic challenges he faced. Part way through he interrupted and with the words that I have tried to live by ever since. He said, stop admiring the problem</em? and tell me what I have to do — today!

As long as “to be or not to be” is a question, it was irrelevant to him. While existential angst makes good drama, it makes lousy strategy. If it leads to action it worth engaging with. Otherwise it’s just “admiring the problem“. I learned a real lesson from that.

I’ve discussed this situation a number of times — often with other strategy consultants. Some get it. Some sympathize with the client to some extent. Others go on to state that this type of thinking is short term or tactical. The real problem, they say, is that the client doesn’t understand the difference between strategic and tactical thinking.

I have a real problem with the phrase, “the client doesn’t understand”. To me, it’s a lot like a comedian claiming the audience doesn’t get the joke.

To me, the client was right. Understanding the real nature of the problem has no intrinsic value by itself. It’s only use is that knowing it has some meaning to guide our actions today. Action is what saves strategy from tragedy. Larry Bossidy in his great book on strategy, which is called, curiously enough Execution makes a virtue of the tactical. He says, sweat the small stuff.

For gap consulting to work a lot of things have to come together. On the surface, we could say that it takes areal leader, with a clear and correct view of the future. No small feat, given the uncertainty and speed of change. One of my friends overheard two executives at a conference saying, “On a clear day, you can see six weeks.”

There is a conundrum here. When the future is uncertain, but the leader is certain, someone is wrong. And if a leader can only be effective if they are always right, who exactly qualifies as a leader? How do you know?

It matters both in perception and in reality. As long as there is any uncertaintly, unless you also own the company and have limitless resources, the leader alone can’t be the only one with the long term view. It needs all stakeholders – investors, employees, suppliers and customers to buy in. Almost any one of these groups can derail a long term strategy — not because of any malicious intent, but even if they just see it as hitting them too hard in the short term. The long view, as many large companies are finding out in this recession, takes enormous resources and very deep pockets.

The real leadership decision of the moment is — even if you are right about the future, can you survive long enough to see it? And that’s only for those who are certain they are right.

Are you that certain of anything? Do you ever wonder if you are wrong? You might have good reason. Anyone who has seen energy prices rise and fall recently has to has to admit that any prediction has a degree of probability — rarely if ever is there a certainty. With uncertainty comes differing views of how to deal with uncertainty. Different capacity. Different risk tolerances. All of the range of human reactions, right up to denial — which, as my friend John Thorp frequently points out, is not a river in Egypt.

What turns strategy into tragedy? The same thing that that gets in the way. Life. That was my big insight.

Could if be that the real model for strategy is not some grand theory, but the same nuts and bolts that drives our everyday lives?

think about it. Most of us know that there is, or should be a direction we should be taking with our lives. We know by and large where we are. We know, or knew where we wanted to get to or at least where we should get to. We even have a reasonable idea of the steps that we need to take.

That alone is not enough. We know what’s good for us but we don’t always do it. Back to that river in Egypt.

In fairness, it’s not only denial that keeps us from doing the right thing. If we are really honest with ourselves — uncertainty plays a role. We’re not sure that even if we do all the right things, we’ll get to our goal. So many factors are out of our control. There are so many risks, so many potential pitfalls. Life isn’t always fair.

If we are really honest, many of us will confess that we are even that certain about the ultimate destination. It’s a matter of faith, not certainty.

So what are we certain about? For many of us — not much. For those bordering on the cynical, the Cheshire Cat gives an explanation to Alice if you read a little past the famous quote. Alice confesses that she doesn’t much care where she goes, as long as it’s somewhere. To this, the Cat answers:

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

That’s the reality we all come to. For some, it’s frightening. For others, it reflects a certain degree of maturity. Take your pick. Either is valid. It doesn’t change the answer. We will get somewhere. It might not get the goals and dreams we started out with.

If that wasn’t sobering enough, the Cat tells Alice some bad news. No matter which direction she goes in, she’s going to face challenges and uncertainty. She won’t be able to tell what path is the “right one”. He points in two directions, one leading to the Hatter and the other leading to the March Hare. His explanation:

“Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

Alice’s protest is an echo of our own.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked

The Cat adds a bit of wisdom for us all.

“Oh you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

That’s my reflection for the week, if you’ll forgive the metaphorical pun.

If Lewis Carroll is right, life is a lot like strategy. It’s a curious adventure in a mad, mad world. We are on an uncertain path to an equally uncertain future. No matter where we go, the signs will be confusing. We will find people who seem strange or different — even crazed in their actions. But in the end, whether we choose to realize it or not, we seem as different (or as mad) to them as they do to us. For those old enough to remember Pogo, the cartoon strip, “we have met the enemy, and it is us.

So much for the certainty of a current state and future state. More times that I care to admit, the assignments I walk into look a lot like this.

That might not always be the fault of the organization. The world is in upheaval. The path is not certain. People are, well — different. And the only certainty is that no matter what you do, you get somewhere.

Wait a minute. Am I talking about life or strategy? Even I’ve lost the distinction, and I’m the omniscient narrator.

I think the are the same in more ways that we care to admit. Classically, we haven’t wanted to see life and strategy the same way. That’s how we can divide between strategy and tactics — as if there is some magic divide between our day to day management and the strategy that guides it. In this concept, strategy is an event — it’s our moment where we corner the cat in a tree and elicit the answers. Life is more like the cryptic message that the Cat gives to Alice — it’s not an event, it’s a journey.

Hence our dissatisfaction with strategy. Often there is no right answer — or if there is one, it’s not forthcoming. This is actually a good thing, if the Cat is right. Because even if we have the answer, the directions take us through a choice of madness and madness. I don’t know about you, but for many owners I talk to, this is a pretty accurate description of the strategic horizons we are all looking at right now.

Are there lessons we can learn that can keep strategy from becoming tragedy?

For answers about life, you have to go back to people. With all of this uncertainty, with all of the disappointment, with all that life hands some of us — why are some people so successful at life? Note that I’m not just talking about people who’ve achieved what we think they should. I’m talking about people who regard their lives as fulfilled — on their terms.

Here’s what I see. Some people have a continuing confidence and belief in their goals. Yet they are flexible about how they will get there. The path is not always clear or linear, but they are always moving towards it. Success comes in steps. Some of these steps will be successful, some will be life lessons. I got this from a close friend who had lost his job this week. You have to know this guy well to know that this was not just hot air. He said, that he knew that the future was full of new possibilities. He sincerely saw this as doors being opened.

This is not being a Pollyanna. I know that this guy understands the issues that he’s facing. This is not denial. This is choosing to see a setback for what it was — one of many steps on the road.

Successful people enjoy success, for what they can do with it. They use that to lever themselves to another level. But when they are not successful, they’ll use that too. They have setbacks, they have learning — not failures.

For them, it’s not a choice between strategic and tactical thinking. It’s a blend. They have to keep an eye on the future for hope, but pay attention to the present.

Like so many things in life — when we ask ourselves to choose between one thing OR another, we’re cheating. Or is rarely the only choice. Often it could also be this AND this? That’s when you need to take the long view. You need to be careful about closing doors until they need to be closed. Decisiveness for its own sake is another way of admiring the problem.

The best analogy I can use is a chess game. In chess, you think of a number of possibilities and are constantly evaluating them. There’s no question what the end goal is, but there are many ways to get there. (Sound familiar?)

It matters in terms of results as well. If you think only of the end — of winning or losing — you’ll lose to a good player. If you think only of the next move — you’ll lose to a mediocre player. If you learn to think of many possibilities and pick the best choices — you’ll be a challenger to even a good or even a great player.

Notice I didn’t say you’ll always win. In chess, in strategy, in life — there is no certainty. But in chess, there’s always more than one game. And isn’t that the same for strategy — and for life?

That’s where I got to this week. The difference between Strategy and Tragedy is not how well we understand the destination. In many cases, the destination is obvious. It’s how well we understand the journey. There are no absolutes, just potential moves that take us closer to our goal. There will be setbacks, even losses. The real question is – how can you learn from those.

If you are as results focused as I am, this little epiphany is bigger than it seems. For those who need a clear path, this could be frightening.

One thing you can be certain of. The Cat was right. If you keep at it long enough, you eventually get somewhere. The real trick is in taking that wisdom and using it to guide the day to day. When I’m uncertain, the best thing for me to do is to really listen to your clients:-) “Stop admiring the problem and tell me what I need to do today.”

Today? You need to be less focused on the end game and more focused on the possibilities that can take you there. There isn’t a certain path, and the certainty of the direction is up to you. Believe in your direction but be flexible about what steps you might have to take to get there. Some will work out, some won’t. What do you need to do today? What are the possibilities? What’s the best action to leave you positioned for that?

And if you make the wrong move, or the wrong move happens to you — learn from it, but regard it was a step. Look at the possibilities.

Hmmm. This could work as a strategic method.

That’s an idea I’m going to play with for a little while. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

As always, I’d love your comments.

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