Don't Get Lost on your Own Turf

The writer Henry Mintzberg tells of coming across a newspaper story about two young Inuit hunters who got lost on their snowmobile and perished in a terrible storm.  When the storm cleared, their bodies were found just a few hundred yards from their village.

For anyone who knows anything about Inuit culture and history, it is a remarkable story.  Inuits have safely traveled the artic region for centuries--in all kinds of weather--without the benefit of mechanized transportation, modern clothing materials, or navigational technology.  It seems unthinkable then, that these hunters, with the added advantages of modern technology, would lose their way and their lives when they were so close to the safety of their homes.

Mintzberg thinks the hunters may have died because the introduction of modern technology (snowmobiles, Gortex parkas, etc.) which caused them to lose touch with the traditional wisdom of their culture. And he thinks the story is an important cautionary tale to organizations as they pursue increasingly “advanced” methods of management.

In business, one “technology” that can have unintended negative consequences is formal strategic planning. If we are not careful, by increasing our dependence on the mostly analytical methods of strategic analysis can cause us to lose our “gut feel” for the business—and we may find ourselves sitting atop our idling strategic planning machines in the midst of a blinding competitive snowstorm.

In the early stages of a company’s growth, strategic planning is done in a primitive and intuitive way.  Members of the company “village” are constantly in contact with each other and with customers—so adaptation occurs so naturally and iteratively that it is difficult to tell where “planning” ends and “doing” activities begin.  But when a company grows beyond a certain point, these informal and ad hoc processes begin to break down.  To handle increased complexity, companies introduce systems, processes, and procedures to help it manage itself.  Eventually, the company has to make hard strategic choices about where it will invest significant resources—in effect placing big bets on which path or paths will most likely lead to safety and success for its people.

So when a company reaches a certain size, strategic planning is not only good, it is vital to continued growth.  The problem is not the introduction of strategic planning per se—rather it is the way it is often implemented.  That’s because most people misunderstand the purpose of strategy:  They think you strategize in order to determine the direction of the firm.  Really, that’s the easy part.  The real purpose of strategizing is to teach people in the company how to think and act strategically.

Far too many companies still envision strategic planning as a primarily cerebral and analytical process. So most strategic planning processes consist of months of analysis of markets, competitors, and environmental factors designed—so that we can arming the top five to ten people in the organization with then information they need to decide the future direction of the firm.  And perhaps in the 1960s, when changed happened more slowly, that may have been possible.  Today, it’s a recipe for failure.

Now I’m not saying that companies should avoid strategic analysis—any more than I would suggest that the Inuit should throw out their snowmobiles and GPS systems.  What I am saying is that if we are not careful, we can become too dependent upon information that is run through multiple analytical filters—to the point that we miss some quick turn in a marketplace, some emerging customer need, or an important opportunity to think out side of the box.

The ideal Inuit hunter is one armed with both all of the advantages of modern technology and the instincts and deep knowledge given to him by his native culture.  The two capabilities need to be woven together.  The same is true with strategy.  While improving their strategic analysis capabilities, companies need to hold on to the “village” approach to decision-making—where close contact and frequent contact between team-members and with customers guides and informs strategic direction (for specific thinking on how to do that, see A Better Scheme for Strategic Planning).  Strategy-making processes should be evaluated first in terms of the degree to which they improve the entire company’s ability to think and act strategically—because as quickly as things change today—totally new strategic decisions are waiting just around the corner.

My family and I traveled this summer to the land of the Inuit, and we were taken by the beautiful sculptures tribal artisans carve out of rock and wood and bone.  We were told that young artists are told to roll the object around in the hands while chanting “who is in there,” and not to start carving until the shape hidden in the object is revealed to them—whether it be a polar bear, seal, or eagle.  Great strategy-making isn’t much different.  To build strategy is to hold an organization in your mind and “roll it around” in an attempt to discover and realize its hidden potential.