Many organisations have it backwards. They "wage war" internally, for resources and power, and 'go to market' by "being (too) straightforward"; launching 'me too' products and services that fail to differentiate them or prevent rivals imitating them.

In a competitive world organisations must "govern by being straight-forward": being transparent and focused on learning so they align quickly around new opportunities and make moves rivals fail to see. This is how to "wage war by being crafty".

Here are two articles about identifying where your next best moves are (awareness) and how to adapt better to change in a more uncertain world (adaptiveness).

Hierarchy of Strategic Thinking | Dare to Give Up Control
1. Hierarchy of Strategic Thinking
Business people bandy about words like strategy, innovation and culture all the time, but if you ask people to define what these words mean you'll get very different answers. So when people repeat well-known phrases such as "culture eats strategy for breakfast" what they're saying is that something (they can't agree on) is more important than something else (they can't agree on). Is it any wonder so many businesses are struggling in these uncertain times?

Confusion increases when people start talking about strategy and tactics. Due to rising uncertainty some businesses have rejected strategy entirely as they equate strategies with plans and they know plans don't survive first contact with reality. Therefore they focus rigorously on tactics instead, which they usually understand to mean 'doing things quicker'. But if you're in a foreign city and trying to find your way to your hotel you don't start running quickly in random directions hoping to get there soon – as hope is not a very good strategy. In this situation of course you'd be better off with a map.

For the world of business there is Wardley Mapping — the best approach to strategy you may not have heard of yet. At its heart sits a 'Hierarchy of Thinking' . This states that, before you decide WHO must do WHAT by WHEN (operational decisions) you must agree HOW you're going to do something (tactical decisions) – these might be decisions about whether to use agile or lean methods; or whether to enter a new market by yourself or in a joint venture with someone else.

However, before you decide HOW to do something you need to align around WHY you're making this move here rather than that move there (strategic decisions) – these might be decisions about why you're building this new product rather than something else; or why you're entering this new market rather than entering some other. But these questions are hard to answer because they're about the future and the future is an uncertain country. Therefore, you need one more type of thinking first — you need to identify WHERE your options for action are.

Identifying multiple WHERES — different products you can develop that will satisfy users' needs; or various markets you could enter to satisfy your own need for surviving and thriving — enables you to compare options and more easily decide WHY these moves here make more sense than those moves there (perhaps market X is better because you have key relationships there; or product X is better because it will force you to develop new skills that will be critical in the future).

Only when you're aligned strategically — agreeing WHY you're making these moves and not others — should you turn to tactics (HOW to do this) and then operational decisions (WHO will do WHAT by WHEN). This is the hierarchy of thinking: WHERE before WHY before HOW before WHO, WHAT & WHEN .

Yet many companies fail by jumping straight into operational decisions (WHO will do that) or focusing only on tactics (HOW will we do that). This upside-down thinking not only makes it harder to make good decisions but also makes the entire decision-making process painful and frustrating for those involved. This is why (too) many companies end up outsourcing their strategic decision-making to whomever can answer WHY (we should do this) most confidently. But the answer all too often is "because it's best practice!" or "it's what Elon Musk would do!". Organisations need better.

So, where does culture come into this? Well, any strategic decision that 'goes against the grain' of a business is destined to fail. If you don't focus on what your customers really need, or develop the skills your people require to satisfy those needs, then you're going to find yourself in trouble — no matter how quickly you do things. It's at that point that the 'thinkers' (who created the strategy) start blaming the 'doers' for poor execution; while the 'doers' (rightly) start criticising the 'thinkers' for both ignoring what customers really need and expecting employees to implement strategies that they lack the skills or support for.

Therefore, it's more correct to say, 'culture eats BAD strategy for breakfast'.

To overcome this problem culture and strategy need to 'have lunch': People from the frontline must come together to identify the multiple WHERES in their landscape — then discuss WHY these moves make more sense than those moves. Only when there's agreement about this should attention turn to HOW they should do this. And if you find yourselves incapable of executing a certain move you go back to your multiple WHERES and make a different set of choices (whilst simultaneously working on developing the capabilities you now know you'll need).

This is the art of strategy in an uncertain world.

To learn more about the importance of awareness click here.
2. Dare To Give Up Control!
Leaders are judged on delivering success. The traditional playbook has been to make the organisation run like a well-oiled, efficient machine — producing ever-greater outputs with ever-minimal inputs. To make the machine efficient a monster, feeding on an insatiable diet of measurement and control, is unleashed. Yet all this time a greater spectre has been lurking over the horizon — an adversary even this monster is no match for — radical uncertainty.

Uncertainty mutates when the information we rely on to make sense of what's happening is: missing (because it hasn't been received or can't be located when needed); unreliable (because the credibility of the source is perceived to be low, even if the information itself might be accurate); ambiguous (as there's more than one way to interpret information); or complex (meaning it's too difficult to integrate different pieces of data).

Humans recoil from uncertainty. In a University College experiment participants were given a "mildly painful electric shock" when their predictions in a game turned out to be wrong. What surprised researchers was that participants who were told they had a 100% chance of getting shocked were less stressed that those who were told they only had a 50% chance. But stress is an evolutionary mechanism — it increases our awareness of the situation as we look for appropriate responses to the dangers we face. For example, the researchers found that the more stressed participants became in their game the better their judgment was.

Yet leaders of organisations are loathe to embrace uncertainty and channel their stress. Instead, uncertainty avoidance kicks in. Unleashing monstrous efficiency over what they still have under control they cut staff and close projects in an often futile attempt to bring a semblance of certainty to a world that suddenly feels chaotic. But leaders have a choice: they can continue to pretend the world is the way they wished it was (predictable and controllable through plans, budgets and forward guidance) or they can embrace uncertainty and use it to discover their next moves. The question is, do you dare to give up control?

Those paying attention will have noticed that Chinese companies have risen from being low-cost manufacturers to high-tech innovators in just 30 years. What's less well-known is how the Chinese are now "reinventing the role of management". Haier, for example, is no longer run by a senior management atop a hierarchical pyramid but "by 4,500 intrapreneurs who have a laser-sharp focus on their specific projects". This is a Chinese revolution in management based on the simple idea that local people know best what works locally.

Leaders increase their chances of success by not trying to pick winners themselves. Instead they cultivate a system that elicits and supports a variety of ideas coming from those who know customers best — people who work closest with them. If anyone believes they've spotted a new opportunity they advertise it on the organisation's digital platform to solicit bids from any qualified people (from within or outside the organisation) who want to form a team to exploit it. If they can't convince others to pursue the opportunity this is the 'wisdom of crowds' sorting the wheat from the chaff — senior managers don't get involved.

People whose ideas do find traction become intrapreneurs (entrepreneurs operating within an organisation). Forming small customer-facing teams, or micro-enterprises, (often 12 people or less) they focus on meeting a clear mission they've identified themselves. Key resources they need (shared services, critical databases, production facilities etc) can be accessed directly through digital platforms run by the organisation. These replace middle-managers — department heads who have traditionally coordinated the activities of others. Information from front-end interfaces, (built by customer-facing teams to engage with end users) flows into senior management without delay or distortion, as does information from digital platforms about the long-term assets being consumed. Senior management now no longer needs to focus on measurement and control for instead it has real-time awareness.

Chinese Organisational Structure — Reinventing the Role of Management
By working with the messinesses of complex human systems (organisations, markets etc) Chinese companies are not fighting uncertainty but embracing it. For making successful moves does not require one to know the future with certainty — it only requires that one is less uncertain about the current situation than rivals are. Flowers in your garden grow if your soil is rich, you sow seeds in the right places (and at the right time) and you adapt to the conditions when they change (watering flowers in a drought, protecting them in a storm).

Continuing to run your organisation like a 20th century machine is a path to destruction. Many organisations will continue as before as inertia — resistance to change — is strong. Past success produces deeply ingrained ways of doing things that are hard to change. While convincing people of the need to act differently when their bonuses are unlocked by doing things in the same old way (agreed during the annual budget) is often impossible.

Some though have started on this path — recognising the future is digital and launching transformation programs. Yet here the focus is too often on the digital — "what technology should we adopt?" to upgrade the systems they've spent years investing in to become a more efficient, better-oiled machine — rather than transformation to the next stage of management. Some will adapt — evolution will deal with those that don't.
In a world of radical uncertainty we must accept that we can not know for certain — but neither do we need to. We can find better moves forward not in spite of uncertainty, but because of it. The way we do this is step-by-step.

First is to stop your organisation harming itself with outdated thinking and practices.

To learn more about the importance of adaptiveness click here.
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