Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Strategic Introspection

It’s been twenty-four years since I was recruited to Durham.  A friend who is also retiring recently surmised it was probably because I already had various levels of experience at founding and growing community-destination marketing organizations (DMOs.)

Others during my now-concluded career credited me with strategic vision, something that always made me feel humbled and a bit awkward to describe when asked, often even now in retirement. 

Maybe that is part of what fueled my interest in how researchers and other experts describe strategy, insight and vision beginning with a keen interest I developed in strategic geniuses such as Napoleon, George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant dating from college days and before.

Start-ups are chaotic.  In the first few months a lot revolves around what Dr. William Duggan at Columbia Business School calls the “expert intuition,” that comes from being able to make quick decisions based on repetitive personal experience and practice.

This is what a hitter uses in baseball.  In his incredible book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, neuroscientist Dr. Robert A Burton explains that at the minimum it takes 200 milliseconds to react to the typical major league pitch traveling between 80-100 miles per hour which will cross home plate in approximately .380 to .460 milliseconds.

The ball travels nine feet before the batter’s retina can process that it left the pitcher’s hand.  There is no time for deliberation because the reaction time and swing alone equal the travel time to the catcher’s mitt.

However, there is some strategic thinking involved too.  The best hitters closely study the background and past performance of pitchers in order to make an educated guess about the kind of pitches that may be thrown in certain circumstances.  Pitchers do the same with opposing team hitters.

I was credited with the thoroughness of the various plans I cranked out for marketing, organization, performance metrics and decision-making within weeks of each of my DMO start-ups.  Of course people usually didn’t realize these plans were just a form of scaffolding and place-holders.

I needed time, not to do in-depth planning which would come later, but to get my head around the over-arching strategy unique during a given time to each community I represented.  According to Duggan’s books and lectures, this comes from what he calls “strategic intuition.”

Classes I took in the 1970s at BYU that touched on strategic thinking and planning took the approach still taught in many schools today: “figure out where you are; decide what you want to be; make a plan;” “set goals and objectives; then identify tactics.”

In other words “ready-aim-fire.”

As Duggan notes in several of his books, papers and interviews, the word strategy dates to 400 B.C. but it didn’t become a field of study until 1810, first related to the military, then by the late nineteenth century in business and by the twentieth century in social enterprise including the public sector.

The planning model I learned in my college days originated in the late 1830s.  However, lacking the resources of large organizations during my career and possibly due to proclivity,  I accidentally stumbled and bumbled into a very different - and according to Duggan - a far more effective and creative approach put forth a few years earlier.

The planning-first approach over relies on “expert intuition” which is based on what you know.  Using “strategic intuition” to first identify an over-arching strategy takes more time up front but you make up for it in effectiveness. It begins with scouring historical resources to find “what works.”

It involves disconnecting the dots and reconnecting them as informed by digging back into history, past studies and background with fresh eyes and then coupling your experience with the experiences of many others.  In the case of Durham, this process took me almost two years from the time we launched, but this aspect was also ongoing.

Some dismiss this as part of the creative process vs. planning.  I realize from reading analysts such as Duggan that strategic thinking for me was both/and but it always began with seeking “strategic insight.”  The flaw Duggan finds with the more wide spread “planning model” is that “learning what works comes at the end not the beginning,” what he terms a “fatal flaw.”

Many large organizations start a strategic planning process with top-down goals and objectives from a governing board and then add tactical elements.  Even after the fact, many fail to identity an over-arching strategy and the eventual outcome is these plans resemble operational plans more than strategic plans and fail to project into the future.

Even when predicated on “strategic intuition,” plans should be organic and updated in real time as new information is gathered and new “strategic insights” surface.  Having a plan is not an excuse to turn off strategic thinking.

Some organizations get by without any strategic planning or thinking required by their governing boards or stakeholders and a few may still consider their leaders to have strategic vision.

Ironically, these individuals unencumbered by structure may still benefit from some elements of “strategic intuition.”   While they may not be accessing background or data stored on the shelves neuroscientists tell us we have in our brains, they still have what Duggan calls “presence of mind.”

This means they can free themselves of goals and objectives and switch directions when an insight or new combination of elements occurs to them or is presented by others.  They must also have the resolution and drive to persevere.

Even so, without more accountability and a fuller approach to strategic thinking and planning it is likely their decisions will often be contaminated by what the new book entitled Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath describes as the “four villains of good decision-making, “narrow-framing,” “confirmation bias,” “short-term emotion” and “overconfidence.”

By failing to anchor in what Duggan calls the precedents at the heart of “creative strategy,” they not only fail to be visionary but they miss a crucial ingredient for innovation.  They also risk being held hostage by special interests.

I never had the luxury to fly solo like that but I know from introspection and study more about why some people viewed me as strategic and visionary than I ever did at any time during my career.

To learn more about strategic thinking, one can do no better than to read Professor Duggan’s books Napoleon’s Glance, The Art of What Works, Strategic Intuition and Creative StrategyHe’s also a great story teller.

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