Chess vs. Ecosystems: What’s strategy really like?

The other day someone sent me a great Twitter thread where a strategy expert explained why he doesn’t do consultancy: namely because, in his view, there is no such thing as strategy consultancy.

You should check out the thread as it’s pretty entertaining, but in essence his argument was that strategy and execution aren’t divisible, so you cannot have a different person “doing the strategy” to the one executing.  In his view this makes about as much sense as getting somebody to “play a game of chess on your behalf” – admittedly a pretty ridiculous concept.

If you’re strategising you’re executing, and if you’re executing you’re strategising, so where precisely does consultancy ever enter into it?

Hmm, interesting stuff.

Naturally as a “strategy consultant” I am duty bound to disagree, but I was wondering why I disagree.  I don’t simply think he’s wrong.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  I think he’s right.  In fact I think everyone is right almost all the time.  Disagreements don’t arise when one person is right and the other is wrong – instead they arise when two people are looking at different parts of reality, and explaining what they see.  If you zoom out far enough, the differences resolve, and you can see that there was in fact no disagreement at all.

So I wanted to try the same thing here – to explain why the author of this thread is right, and yet also why strategy consultancy is completely viable.  And to do this, we must tease apart two different “versions” of strategy which are often confused, and can be explained by two different analogies:

  • Chess
  • Ecosystems

I’ll start with “chess strategy” which, obviously, is the one referenced in the thread.

Chess strategy understands strategic behaviour to be akin to playing a game of chess; where you’re locked in a competitive battle with another party (i.e. another brand), and each of you make “moves” to try and gain advantage each other.  The important thing to understand about chess strategy is that it breaks strategy down into granular actions (moves) spread over time, just like in a real game of chess.  So your flow of action will look something like this:

Move 1: do X
Move 2: do Y
Move 3: do Z

In between each move the scenario (e.g. the market) changes, and so you have to re-strategise so you can plan for your next action.

Understood this way strategy is rolling process of perpetual analysis and adjustment based on unfolding circumstances.  There isn’t really a single macro strategy per se, because you are called upon to be responsive.  Yes, just like in a game of chess you might begin with a general strategic approach in mind, or you might follow a strategy for series of moves – but eventually this will be largely out of the window, since you’re “in play” now, and no plan survives contact with the enemy.

As you can see, when understood this way it is true that “strategic consultancy” isn’t entirely natural.  Strategy requires a continual flow of move-adapt-move-adapt-move-adapt, which, if someone was to do it for you, would basically mean they’re doing your job.

(Even so I would argue that it’s beneficial to get strategic advice during this process so you have someone to bounce things around with and who can offer a different perspective – but that’s by the by)

Still, whether or not consultancy is right for chess strategy, it certainly is for our other version of strategy, “ecosystem strategy”.

Ecosystem strategy understands businesses as parts of a “natural ecosystem” (i.e. the market), within which they play a particular role, just as an organism does.  For instance in nature bees do one “job”, wolves do another, and oak trees do another – and by the same token so do various businesses in a given market.  In both cases the health and success of the organism/business is dictated by 1) understanding what its role is, and 2) doing that role effectively, in a manner that’s harmonious with the competitors around it.

So for a basic example, Jeep know that their role in the ecosystem is to make rugged off-road vehicles, and so provided they do that effectively they’ll continue to thrive.  It would be “off strategy” if they were suddenly to make a natty little urban runaround.

Now where ecosystem strategy differs from chess strategy is that it is “one big idea” that the business keeps on referring to over time, rather than a sequence of smaller more changeable ideas.  Whilst chess strategy assumes that the two players (businesses) are fundamentally the same at the start of play, ecosystem strategy assumes that they are distinct, and have totally different ways of being in the world – totally different “rules” by which they play.  An ecosystem strategy determines who you are at an existential level – and as such what moves you are suited to going forwards.

In this scenario then strategy consultancy is totally viable, because the strategy (i.e. the role of the business in the ecosystem) is a general blueprint which can then be handed-over to execute.  The consultant says “the overarching job of your business is X”, and then you are able to go and execute using that understanding as a guide.

Yes, once again we are confronted by the blurred definitions of the word “strategy”; the industry’s eternal curse.

It goes without saying that there is no either/or when it comes to chess and ecosystem strategies. You should do both.  Jeep know what their overarching ecosystem strategy is, but they still play chess on a day-to-day basis.  They still have to make a sequence of moves, each time adjusting to changed circumstances.  It’s just that they make those moves as Jeep – not as some abstracted generic “company”.

Strategy then is both “fixed” and “ever changing”.  It is an interplay between what you can do at this moment in time and who you are.  Neglect either one of these and you’re only doing half a job – whether you’ve got a consultant helping you, or not.

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