Strategy is used to leverage what we cannot control. In dynamic, external environments, most of what happens isn’t controlled or planned by anyone. In these environment, everyone’s plans collide resulting in what no one planned. Chaos arises because people are competing, the critical resources are contested, and the key decisions of customers, competitors, and potential partners are outside of our control. In these external environments, we don’t have the time or information to plan our way through our decisions. We need the instant strategic insight into rapidly changing conditions to make the right decision.
The World Outside of Our Control
The hard truth is that virtually all of the world is outside our direct control. The important decisions that we make are about unexpected events that arrive unannounced at our door. This is the realm of strategy. Our information about what is happening and might happen is limited. In our constantly changing environments, our most valuable resource is the ability to take quick, decisive action. Our world constantly creates unique situations, which require responses, many of these situations are opportunities that look like problems because we didn’t plan for them.
Success in the world outside of our control does not come from planning. In these dynamic arenas, a series of predetermined steps leading to a predictable result is impossible. There is no pre-defined series of steps that will take a us from where we are to where the world is inviting us to go. As the saying goes, our plans do not survive first contact with the enemy. If we want to pursue the opportunities that life offers, we have to recognize them and take advantage of them when they arrive. They don’t arrive on any schedule or according to any human plan.
The Adaptive Loop
Instead of a linear planning, we make strategic decisions using a feedback loop. The loop starts with determining what our situation is. As we take actions, we have to determine the effect of those actions before making our next move. The goal of each cycle is to improve our position, but we do not know the direction in which we will move until we see what the situation offers. We call this loop the Progress Cycle or, more simply, listen-aim-move-claim. After mastering strategy, it becomes an automatic way of thinking about situations.
Developing our strategic reflexes starts with the humble acceptance that competitive environments are outside of our control. Any competitive arena—the marketplace, the job market, or a sports arena—is defined by its complexity and unpredictability. We can learn to navigate these environments but only by utilizing the quickly shifting forces within them.
While planning is like running a train on a schedule, strategy is like sailing. We have constantly adjusting to the environment. The wind don’t always arrive on time.
Dealing with Complexity
Competitive environments are both much larger and much more complex than we can consciously understand. Many players are unknown. Individuals and groups behave in unpredictable ways. Competitors actively mislead each other about their plans. People often act on an impulse, reacting to fast-changing conditions. The competitive environment is a puzzle that reshapes itself continuously.
This environment has too much information. You don’t have time to collect it all. If you did, it is too complicated and fast-changing to coordinate in a systematic manner. Success depends upon selecting the appropriate moves for the specific situation in a limited time. It also demands creativity, finding new moves that are made possible by the unique nature of the situation.
The science of strategy provides the mental models needed to make sense of that environment. These model are called the Nine Formulas. They allow us to pull the key information out of a chaotic environment, identify opportunities, and make better decisions every day.
Our instant recognition of the key aspects of these situations allows us to instantly tailor our responses. Training allows us to know the type of the response required by each aspect of the situation. We can mix aspects of our response in just the right proportions to create something new. Our trained strategic reflexes unleash our human creativity in bursts of instant insight.
Success demands an understanding of competitive situations that becomes intuitive and reflexive. That level of understanding generates flashes of insight and inspiration. You cannot plan on insight, but where does it come from?