I routinely say that the vast majority of businesses “don’t have a strategy”, but if I’m honest, that’s not entirely accurate.
In reality all businesses do, in fact, have a strategy. It’s just that for most of them it’s unconscious.
An “unconscious strategy” might seem like a contradiction in terms, given that a strategy is a deliberate way of coordinating actions. And certainly it will inevitably be much woolier than a conscious one. But they do nevertheless exist.
The way to identify such a thing, is to intuit it by observing the sum of the decisions that a business takes.
In a business with a conscious strategy, the strategy determines the decisions, like this:
Conscious strategy —> decisions
In a business with an unconscious strategy that process is reversed, with the seemingly random decisions coming together to define a strategy that nobody’s really aware of, like this:
Sum of decisions —> unconscious strategy
In theory you could go into any business, look at all the decisions they’ve made, bundle them together, and summarise them into a strategic direction that has been (unconsciously) followed up to that point. Some deep network of assumptions and prejudices that are driving choices from the depths of the founder’s mind. It’s all about pattern recognition. It’s highly unlikely that the decisions will be so random and divergent that there will be no discernible pattern to them. There will always be subtle decision making framework that has been followed, even if the people involved didn’t realise they were doing it.
Now, we might well ask: is an unconscious strategy a good thing?
Clearly it’s not “proper” strategy, so you might expect me to say no, however I do think it can have a surprising, even “magical” power.
For one thing, in the case of a business which has no conscious strategy but is doing really well, we can probably conclude that their unconscious strategy is the right strategy. After all it’s doing the job, no? In such cases strategy development essentially boils down to observing what the business is doing unconsciously, and making it conscious. Bringing it from darkness into light. Such an exercise doesn’t really require too much speculative thinking at all – it’s really just a question of observation.
When you do that, you will of course find that quite a few decisions you’ve made weren’t in fact aligned even with the unconscious strategy. Perhaps only 60% of them were – after all it’s only a tendency we’re talking about there. But that’s no problem, because now you’re conscious of it, you can correct those errors and pull everything into alignment.
So that’s the obvious benefit of a decent unconscious strategy.
What’s perhaps even more intriguing than this however, is the potential to pursue a deliberate unconscious strategy.
This is even more paradoxical than mere unconscious strategy, but allow me to explain.
A friend of mine runs a small coaching business that is doing really well. One day we were talking about it, and he told me something that really made me think:
“At the end of the day, all my business partner and I really do when we’re making decisions is to ask ‘is this simple, easy, and fun?’ – if it isn’t, we just don’t do it, and one way or another things work out”.
This sounds like the opposite of all the advice we typically get about working hard, following best practice, doing the “smart” thing, and so on – but I believe there’s a deep truth here. By only doing things they consider to be “simple, easy, and fun”, my friend and his business partner have been able to intuitively guide their business to places where their expertise matches a market need. They never drift into territory that is overly competitive, as that wouldn’t be “easy”. They never do anything that they aren’t good at, as that wouldn’t be “simple”. And they never waver from their heart-felt sense of purpose, as that wouldn’t be “fun”.
Simple. Easy. Fun. This is a recipe for deliberate unconscious strategy. They don’t have a prescribed “proper” strategy to follow that is making their decisions for them; so they couldn’t really quite tell you what they’re doing. But nevertheless they are behaving in a manner that maximises their chances of making strategically sound decisions in the absence of a proper strategy.
At some point they’ll be able to take a step back, analyse the things they’ve done, and the strategy will reveal itself to them – allowing them to proceed more confidently, and to accelerate their growth.
For those of you who are into this kind of thing, you’ll probably recognise that what I’m talking about here is essentially a Daoist approach. It’s a method of connecting with the “universal flow” rather than fighting against it. Although this sounds very woo-woo, it is fundamentally the way strategy works: by finding the path of least resistance in the world around you and submitting to it, the way that water conforms itself to the mountainside to find the smoothest path downhill.
If I’m honest this is a technique I use as well, despite my belief in “conscious strategy”. For instance I’ve found that it’s not possible for me to deliberately “engineer” new business opportunities in a textbook linear fashion. Instead it’s much more effective for me to simply go out into the world and be helpful in an open-hearted manner, and trust that it will deliver results in a mysterious and unpredictable way.
And it has.
Now, let’s get it straight, this is not me repudiating proper conscious strategy. I’m not saying that every business should just go with the flow and everything will be OK. This approach really only works with very small one or two-person businesses, where you don’t need to coordinate a team or multiple moving parts. The moment a business grows beyond this, unconscious strategy (even of the best and most deliberate variety) will begin to unravel and display its contradictions. At that point you need a way of coordinating everyone’s decisions, and so unless you’re able to develop a sort of “psychic hive-mind” with your team, that’s going to require a formal strategy.
Still, until you reach that point, I think perhaps you should be more “heart led” with your decisions than you might think. There is a deeper wisdom to “simple, easy, fun” than meets the eye. And it goes well beyond what we are able to rationally grasp.