To whom do you entrust your strategy?

As I was rethinking what recent business strategy authors are proposing I found it difficult to come up with an example. Who or what is a good representation of it? An example that isn’t obvious and still illustrative. Not a guy who is already dead for 200 years and nobody knows of, but somebody that I think people will recognize. Something from a movie pepiraterhaps.

It is certainly not some computer like Hal 9000 from A Space Odyssey. This is an important point I want to make. I tend to answer colleagues that imperfections are good news when they complain about problems in the implementation of the strategy. It simply reflects the fact that we are all human. The imperfections, also outside our own organization (!), are jobs done by and for humans. This is what J.C. Spender is pointing at. If strategy would be all about logical deductions and conclusions then we better get rid of all CEOs, C<fill in title> and the lot. Buy a computer and we’re good to go… or are we?

I think we are not. A computer is a box. It can only, powerful as it or its BIG data may be, “think” inside of that box. The opposition of every strategist is a thinking human being. That human opponent will not only think about his own plan but, a good one, also about how to frustrate yours. A computer cannot handle this. Of course you may say the computer will simple calculate all possible options, and for chess that is true. Not for business strategy. All a human needs to do is find the option that is outside the box. That is certainly not easy, but it is true. Humans dream and in there they can boldly go when no computer has gone before.

Back to my question. The answer occurred to me when recently the “At World’s End” episode of Pirates of the Caribbean was on television. At some point lord Cutler Beckett orders his ship to pursue Jack Sparrow and at that moment the mainmast breaks down. An officer then asks in a wondering way: Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along? That’s it! Captain Jack Sparrow is a good illustration of a real strategists. I can imagine you may say: no way! I agree it isn’t obvious, perhaps even ridiculous. But just take a few moments to think it through. Also, and very important, try to think as if you are opposing Jack. So don’t think as if you were him…

Just take a few moments and picture that…

Now try to answer these questions. Would you be fully aware of what your opponent is up to? What his aim is. Probably you would be able to make a guess and feel relatively certain, and yet also a bit nervous about it. Would you know perfectly well what to do against an opponent like Jack? Probably not. The number of possibilities of what he might do as he goes along are truly infinite. Analysis paralysis lurks in your background. But would you know what to do next, and dare to do so. Probably you would and at the same time still be uncertain about it. The good news for you: the same is true for Jack!

With this in mind I looked again at the movies and it became perfectly clear. Jack Sparrow has an aim and an idea about how to get there. At all times and in every situation he finds himself, however, he is considering this against the (lack of) opportunities and the people involved. A good example is how he tries to make sense of the rotating map, gets it, understands that up is down and then starts to roll the ship over in a way that everybody around him joins in. In a way Jack exemplifies perfectly a well-known trinity in strategy: human nature, opportunity and human intellect (i.e. the plan). This trinity constantly changes, and Jack adapts like a perfect chameleon.

Jack is not alone and has a skilled opponent: Lord Cutler Beckett. They are depicted as opposites in every possible way, but he too is a real strategist. Lord Cutler Beckett clearly has an aim, a plan and his ambitions are boundless. More importantly the most valuable thing for him is not gold, like for most people around him, but the one thing that strategist value above all: information. Every time he receives new information he does what Jack does and any other real strategist: he looks at it and considers it against the situation, the (lack of) opportunities and his plan. That’s Strategy!

And that leaves just the one question you might ask yourself: to whom would you entrust the strategy of your organization, a lord or a pirate?

Jan-Willem Boots is co-founder of Changing Games 

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