Strategy and Shaping the New Abnormal

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Human beings yearn to understand the world. The search for the truth is deeply embedded in the human psyche and influences how we experience the world around us. The need to understand and make sense of an increasingly fragmented world is a threatening new reality. Those who are desperate to establish order amidst a confusing reality risk elevating soothsayers and charlatans to prophets and kings. Sloppy reasoning runs the risk of obscuring our ability to distinguish between reality and, in turn, chart a viable future. Moments of crisis impair our ability to make sense while also increasing our longing for sensible answers. That paradox is more pronounced because of COVID-19. No doubt, we are in a deep systemic crisis that has been unfolding for quite some time. COVID-19 has revealed the inequities and broken social contract of our current global operating system. As I wrote here, cracks become fissures and normal is no longer enough. If there is a chance to correct our current trajectory strategy must take center stage. Bold action is not a luxury but a necessity. We have the power to not only wrestle with the significant challenges we face as a society but to transform it wholly. A world rooted in fear, scarcity, and zero-sum reasoning has never served us. It’s time to think and act differently.

Strategy Matters

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims” — Buckminster Fuller

One of the most referenced quotes in business is Peter Drucker’s “ Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Its popularity illustrates the importance that Drucker placed on understanding culture. I share his opinion that culture is vital, but where we differ is in making it separable from how we think about strategy. In that sense, Drucker’s sentiment in its purest iteration is not applicable. Drucker’s statement implies an oppositional relationship between culture and strategy. In typical zero-sum reasoning, one has to choose between culture and strategy when determining the best methodology to take on a challenge. Culture and strategy are not opposing forces but share a powerful blended identity. I define culture as consisting of the shared world of ideas and values that connect us and are manifested through people, places, formal and informal networks. That definition grasps just how culture works to provide meaning and structure to our world. Culture shifts between formal and informal systems like natural elements. Culture has both structure and rules, like language, and is also malleable and shapeless, like water. Strategy requires a deep understanding of the underlying culture to be useful in addressing complex problems. Richard Rumelt’s “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy” remains one of the best books I have read on strategy. His work (with others) has played a substantial role in my thinking on the subject. In the book, Rumelt discusses the type of empty prose, and basic organizational goal setting often substitutes for actual strategy. He distinguishes between good strategy (rarely implemented) and bad strategy (far more prevalent). Strategy must lead to action via a thorough diagnosis of the problem, the creation of guiding policy, and coherent action at the end of that process. Culture is essential to understanding, properly framing, and then diagnosing a problem.

The “new abnormal” created by COVID-19 has shown it is vital to have a highly functioning society versus the limited nature of our existing (non) working model. In this chaotic environment, we need strategists as architects, and the raw materials on which we design and build are based on culture.

De-Siloing and the Generalist

“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” — Thomas Berry

As architects of the future, it’s time to gather our materials and work toward building a future that works. One of the legacies of the industrial age story is organizational design predicated upon operational silos. In most organizations, business units sit in silos of purported expertise and have a classic top-down hierarchal structure. Marketing, finance, operations, human resources, technology, and more largely silo their responsibilities and perspectives. The subsequent reporting chain culminates and aggregates in the C-suite. Conventional wisdom dictates strict functional areas connected through classic reporting structures will maximize organizational efficiency. In turn, specialists will be tasked with managing their area of expertise. Silos and specificity coexist in a reinforcing loop within most organizations. While seemingly efficient, is this effective?

Efficiency is not a meaningful way to determine what systems and procedures are relevant. When facing complex and immense challenges, the only rational choice is to rewrite the rules. The old rules, the old ways of doing things are how we have collectively arrived at this singular moment. New strategies will actively seek to de-silo the way we work and think about our future. A VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) reality demands that we utilize expertise from all walks of life and backgrounds. Organizations committed to radical transformation must develop a genuinely multidisciplinary approach that encourages cross-functional responsibilities and reporting. That is the only way to ensure you can take advantage of best practices and knowledge wherever they reside.

As we de-silo, we must simultaneously embrace the generalist as best prepared to develop a strategic mandate. Those who can access seemingly disconnected pools of knowledge and synthesize insights will be increasingly valuable. A generalist is best suited to uncover insights that might otherwise remain invisible and then make them applicable to new ideas. Generalists act as “signal seekers” and ply their trade in the margins before patterns are firmly established. That skill is a tremendous advantage when attempting to make sense of uncertain environments.

Embracing Complexity

The words complexity and complicated are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Complicated procedures can be simplified, while complex systems operate differently. The assembly line model of production is an example of a complicated process that can be simplified via technology improvements and labor training. Complex systems resist simplification. Their connected nature operates in such a way that breaking them apart changes the quality of the system itself. Complexity is separable, we can acknowledge components of the system, but the properties of the whole defy absolute predictions. Simply put, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” A strategist must not only see the parts but also endeavor to understand how the connections form and what new behaviors can emerge as the system scales. Strategists must resist the allure of the short-term thinking that is all too common in organizations as they default to simple fixes. Many complex systems are adaptive and evolve. Accurately diagnosing behaviors on a long enough time horizon increases the chances for new trends to emerge. Many organizations assume the primacy of the short term; simplistic thinking and a good strategy will work in opposition to those forces. Strategists must embrace complexity, as it is the only way to harness a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary approach to future scenarios.

Avoiding the Nostalgia Trap

Strategy is a forward-facing discipline, but it should never ignore the past. The past is valuable because that is the roots of our present-day culture can be accessed. Even as you endeavor to understand and contextualize history properly, it is essential to avoid the nostalgia trap. Nostalgia has many beneficial qualities in branding and communication. Nostalgia triggers old memories and tends to have high emotional resonance. Nostalgia can also be weaponized in an attempt to stoke fear and invoke divisive ideas of scarcity. The past, potential futures, and nostalgia are all linked and mapped by Alberto Barreiro, Strategic Designer and Curator, Become.

Barreiro’s matrix is a highly effective representation of the choices that exist within our broader culture. We swing back and forth between these options, and the past and future are very much ideologically connected. A strategist must navigate the forces that exist within each quadrant and develop policies and coherent actions that drive results in the transformation segment. Strategists must also understand the risks that accompany fear/scarcity-based ideologies. Transformational change is possible if we use our collective imagination to grasp the magnitude of what is needed and then create actionable measures.

Magic and Portals

“Magical, fantastic, dreamlike experiences are almost by definition, unpredictable. … Both control and the nonhuman technologies that produce control tend to be inimical to enchantment. … Fantastic experiences can go anywhere; anything can happen. Such unpredictability clearly is not possible in a tightly controlled environment.” — George Ritzer, The Irrationality of Rationality

Arundhati Roy and James Baldwin are two of my intellectual north stars. I regularly read and re-read their work to find inspiration. They have greatly influenced my thinking, and I apply their piercing observations on society in my work whenever possible. Both Roy and Baldwin embody a radical intellectualism that illuminates the beautiful messiness of the human experience. They reveal many of the ethereal ideas critical to creating new possibilities: justice, joy, and compassion. In her recent essay “Pandemic Is a Portal,” Roy uses the imagery of a portal to describe the potential for the transition from our current state to something different. Roy says, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers, and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” In his 1964 collection of essays with photographer Richard Avedon “Nothing Personal,” James Baldwin discusses the transition between life and death. Baldwin writes, “Four AM can be a devastating hour. The day, no matter what kind of day it was, is indisputably over; almost instantaneously, a new day begins: and how will one bear it? Probably no better than one bore the day that is ending, possibly not as well. Moreover, a day is coming one will not recall, the last day of one’s life, and on that day, one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed. It is a fearful speculation — or, rather, a fearful knowledge — that, one day, one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you,” The reflections on space and inevitable movement from one state of being to another inform both perspectives. Baldwin adds, “I think all of our voyages drive us there, for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.” From both Roy and Baldwin’s view, transitional states are both personal and universal. The portal exists but what will we bring with us? Will we fight for a better future? These are hopeful ideas. We don’t save each other often, Baldwin states, but we do some of the time. Their guarded optimism is why we must resist the cynic that tells us that none of this matters. Those who opine just for the sake of being contrarian and seek to deny the profound possibilities within our grasp with hard work. The cynic would rather dig in their heels to protect the status quo than open their heart and build something new. Strategists are in stark relief to the cynic because their nature and work requires to look into the unknown and derive meaning. Strategies that are designed to navigate the portal must manifest through a commitment to magic. The magic that permits us to save each other is in abundance if we tap into it. Our attention, imagination, and labor as strategists must be in service to a future worthy of the portal.

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Cultural Anthropologist & Strategist, Host of The Deep Dive, Columnist for MediaVillage, provider of sound & vibe as 9 Is Water

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Philip McKenzie

Philip McKenzie

Cultural Anthropologist & Strategist, Host of The Deep Dive, Columnist for MediaVillage, provider of sound & vibe as 9 Is Water

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