What lies at the root of all strategic thinking?
Strategy is a word a lot of people have problems with due to its muddled usage over the years, particularly in business, however in essence its meaning is very simple:
The path by which something will succeed.
That something could be a company, a book, a play, an idea, a relationship, a government policy; any human endeavour which can go in multiple directions, and which might succeed or fail. The direction which that thing takes will define its outcome, and so the art of strategy is simply choosing the correct path.
You can apply strategy to quite literally anything like this; and so in principle being a decent strategist on a general level is perhaps the most useful skill you can master.
The question is how.
Traditionally any efforts to “teach” strategy have been limited specific domains (e.g. business strategy, marketing strategy, etc.), and so have revolved around models customised to those scenarios. Some have been good, some have been bad, but what they have generally lacked is an essential nature which makes them broadly applicable – equally useful for choosing the path a corporation should take though a market, or to what you’re going to have for breakfast that morning.
What I want to outline in this essay is a strategic approach which I believe represents the root of all strategy, and which can be extrapolated out into any human domain.
It is the underpinning to the strategies I develop for my clients with Basic Arts, but its utility is in fact far wider than that as hopefully you shall see.
It has no models, no jargon, no flow charts; it is nothing other than an idea, a principle for organising your thinking. Interestingly it is almost the exact opposite to the way we normally think, which probably explains why most of us are so bad at strategic thinking most of the time. It’s fair to say that it doesn’t really come naturally to humans, and certain automatic behaviours need to be overcome if we are to do it effectively.
The name I give to this approach is systemic strategy.
Systemic strategy holds that:
The essence of strategy is discovering how something “fits” into the system around it. The extent to which something “fits” defines the extent to which it will succeed.
Breaking it down, the mechanics are pretty simple.
Essentially you have “things” (concepts; companies, ideas, people, etc.) and you have “systems” (the contexts in which those concepts operate; markets, ecosystems, cultures, etc.). If something fits harmoniously into its surrounding system – like a piece in a fluid jigsaw puzzle if you like – then it will thrive, and also support the health of the system itself. If however it clashes with the system, and tries to override it, then the thing will fail, and in all likelihood damage the system.
For a very simple illustration of this idea, think about your liver. This is a discrete thing which exists within a system (your body). Providing the liver “does its job” in that system, both it and the system will do well, operating harmoniously. If however the liver decides to behave in a manner that clashes with the system, and ceases to do its job, then it will damage both itself and system it inhabits.
Moving up a level, the same thing applies in a natural ecosystem. Here the “thing” in question might be an animal species. Providing that animal species does its prescribed job within the ecosystem – fulfils its “nature”, if you like – then it will survive, and the surrounding system will be healthy. But if not then it won’t – as can be demonstrated by the destruction that an invasive species might have: something that doesn’t fit.
These basic examples demonstrate the meaning of “fit”, and how it can be harmonious, or clashing. Of course in nature this process happens automatically via evolution (“survival of the fittest” means survival of that which “fits” best), however in the human sphere that automatic selection doesn’t occur because we exercise a degree of control and choice. That’s why strategy is a uniquely human endeavour: it involves making the correct choice in an effort to mimic the selection process of evolution.
Simply put then, in strategy your aim is to shape something so it finds that “fit” into its equivalent system.
“Bad strategy” occurs when we overrule or ignore the demands of the system in favour of our own preferred direction – like a liver suddenly deciding it would prefer to do something different. Bad strategy places the desires of the component over those of the system, something we do all the time because generally we (or our company) are the component – prompting us to act selfishly or hubristically.
Bad strategy then misses the golden rule of all strategy, which is:
Good strategies are dictated by the system, not chosen by the component.
I cannot stress this enough, because this is the very centre of systemic strategy, and indeed all effective strategy in general. A system has a role it “wants” the things within it to play, defined by the movements and characteristics of all the other things swirling around within it. This means that each thing cannot choose its own path to success, or choose how it wants to behave. Indeed choice actually plays no role at all – things must find their path, they must discover it; they must discover how the system wants them to be.
This idea is central to the philosophy of Taoism. Taoism emphasises aligning yourself with The Way – i.e. the “flow of the universe” – in order to thrive without effort. An analogy that is often used is that of water finding the most effortless way to flow downhill, by simply adhering to the contours of the mountainside. The water (the thing) doesn’t choose its path downhill: the hill does (the context). If the water wanted to take a different path it would be going against the context, and thus would be unsuccessful, and so instead it just allows itself to be moulded by it, thereby proceeding effortlessly.
That is strategy. Finding the path of least resistance in the context, and flowing with it. In other words finding “fit”.
The centrality of humility
Although it may sound basic, this idea is extremely difficult for people to come to terms with, because it undermines our faith in our own agency. We are extremely hubristic by nature, and believe that we can create the future, and choose our own path, so the idea that the optimal path in any given situation is one that is chosen for us, not by us, is hard to bear.
In the case of business strategy, for instance, this means that the market (the system in that case) chooses the role for a business, rather than the business or its management team choosing it themselves. Because we are unable to unravel or understand complex systems particularly well, it’s highly unlikely that the initial idea for a business will match what the market wants from it. What is much more likely (and typical of most businesses) is that the initial idea will be a bad one, and that the market will either a) simply reject it and it will fail, or b) will identify an alternative role for it, different from the one the founders originally intended, and it will succeed in spite of them.
Smart management sits back, listens, observes, and searches for that role, and once they’ve found it adopt it as their strategy – allowing them to subsequently act in alignment with the system.
Bad management sticks to their original plan, or chooses their own path, and in doing so finds themselves operating at odds with the market and indeed their own business, which, like water flowing downhill, will be trying to adhere to the contours of the system.
Strategy then could be said to be a process of applying radical humility: putting your wishes aside, and adhering to the “will” of a “greater power”.
You can see these dynamics played out in all sorts of non-business contexts.
Think about the strategy of what clothes to wear. Yes, on a super basic level the correct outfit is determined by the context of the weather that day, but the full picture is infinitely more subtle. If you think about what clothes suit you personally, you can see that the choice isn’t really up to you. What suits someone is determined fully by the context: of where you are, when you are, who you are, how you look, and how you behave. Adding all these factors together, some outfits will simply look and feel right, and others will simply look and feel wrong – and your personal wishes will have little to do with it; as everyone who ever had a cringeworthy teenage flirtation with personal “reinvention” will probably recall.
Another example can be found by thinking about the influence of local culture. Culture essentially represents the “rules of the game” in a specific local environment, rules which have emerged gradually over hundreds of years based on geography, history, religion, language, and all sorts of other factors. If you are a local to that culture – a product of it – then you have an inherent advantage operating within it compared to an outside immigrant because you instinctively know the rules of the game. In other words, you “fit”, without even trying, and thus are more likely to succeed. This is the primary factor that, generally, puts immigrant communities at a disadvantage. Yes ill-will on the part of the host culture can certainly play a part, but even in its complete absence any immigrant anywhere would have to overcome their lack of cultural mastery – lack of “fit”.
In short some things flow, and some things don’t, and it is only the system which chooses which is which – our wishes be damned.
The futility of “effort”, and its damage
So to recap, we can say that good strategies are “found”, not “created”, and that in each scenario The Way exists already, and your goal is simply to adhere to it.
One way you will know if you’ve succeeded, is that success should occur essentially without effort, because it will represent the harmonious matching of the concept and context, and everything should just “work”.
Returning to the natural allegory, you can see this principle demonstrated by the fact that wild animals, in their natural habitat, automatically operate at full health and vitality. They do not need to “try” to be in shape – there’s no need for them to work out, or go on a special diet – their body is simply occupying the context it was designed for, to which it’s optimally adapted. When these conditions are met, functionality is perfect, effortlessly. However when they are removed from these conditions – most obviously put into a zoo – their health ceases to be effortless, and sickliness becomes the default.
Naturally this latter scenario is where we human beings find ourselves. We have built a world which is very different from our natural habitat, a world described as a “human zoo” by Desmond Morris in his book of the same name, and as such we don’t function optimally within it. This means we have to employ various interventions and apply serious effort to get back to the level of health that a creature with “system fit” takes for granted.
In exactly the same manner, any strategy without system fit will take effort to pursue – whilst any strategy with system fit will be effortless. In Taoism this is referred to as “wu wei”: effortless action.
To that point, it should be acknowledged that hubristic, non-systemic strategies aren’t necessarily doomed to failure. They can in fact be extremely “successful” on certain metrics. It’s just that they will require brute force, serious graft, and serious cost, to execute effectively. There are plenty of bad business ideas launched by large corporates with huge budgets that they manage to (more or less) make “work”. There are plenty of bad relationships which, through applied will, people make “work”. Indeed there are plenty of bad strategies all over the place which are “successfully” implemented via the application of effort and cost.
What I will say about this approach however is that forcibly executing a non-systemic strategy, as well as being needlessly difficult, will also be high corrosive and damaging to the system. We are talking here about bulldozing the hillside so the water can flow straight, rather than simply letting it find the effortless way down it – and such bulldozing will come with negative, unanticipated consequences.
To illustrate this with an extremely macro level example (which I hope is helpful, but might create some cognitive dissonance for some), you might say that agriculture was a non-systemic operating strategy for mankind which although “effective” came with huge costs.
The systemic strategy of course would have been – just like any other animal – to have accepted the food which was provided by nature on its own terms. This was, relatively speaking, an effortless process, which also largely speaking accrued effortless health to both people and the ecosystem. However with the development of agriculture (an idea which represented an “overruling” of the system), came the cost of far more effort on humans’ part (agriculture is more labour intensive than hunter gathering), sickliness (as our diet became unbalanced from what our bodies were adapted to), and an explosion of consequences for the system (ecological, population inflation, etc.).
One might even say that as well as being effortful and corrosive, it is unclear whether the agricultural strategy will even be successful on its own terms when it comes to survival, since agricultural civilisation is only about 5,000 years old, which pales in comparison with that of, for example, the Kalahari Bushmen hunter gatherer civilisation which survived for more than 100,000 years until being overrun by the new strategy.
This is naturally a much deeper and more complex topic than I have laid out here, I only use it to add colour to the principle that systemically defined strategies are both effortless and healthy for all parties, whilst strategies that overrule or contradict the system come at great cost. Sufficed to say in a typical scenario there is little reason to pick a strategy that is difficult and costly when you could have one which is easy and free.
The bottom line
There are various subtleties a layer down here which I haven’t addressed (for example the influence that one’s definition of “success” might have in a given situation), but that’s not important right now. All that you really need to take away is:
- Effective strategies involve helping something find “fit” with the system around it
- That fit is defined by the shape of the system
- The more fit you have the easier, and less costly, your success will be
Merely by imbuing these principles you will be far closer to strong strategic thinking than the vast majority of people. Not because this approach is necessarily easy (it isn’t), but because you will recognise the grand secret of strategy: that it is an exercise in humility, not control or hubris.
You will probably be familiar with the Biblical verse “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”. Well, strategy existed then just as it does now – and finer strategic advice can’t be found.
If you are interested in some of the non-business, even more abstract and philosophical implications of this idea, I have been collecting those thoughts at www.alexmhsmith.com.