Monday, 7 April 2014


We can all make the mistake of getting stuck in the same old groove. But business can’t be treated like Su Doku, a game with straightforward rules.  Yet words best designed to make anyone scream like corporate template and company strategy (usually because there isn’t one) are same old groove words for most people.

If we are going to make well informed, even inspired decisions we have to get outside the groove and consider our situation from a different perspective - what Professor John Kay of the LSE calls “obliquity”. He says obliquity (pursuing our goals indirectly) is necessary because living in a world of uncertainty means the problems we encounter aren’t always clear and we often can’t pinpoint what our real goals are. Things change and people (the behaviour of whom is often hard to predict) change too. Direct approaches are often unimaginative whilst ‘muddling through’ for a bit can sometimes be a much more productive answer.

Stories of improvisation beating the corporate plan abound but I enjoy one Malcolm Gladwell tells. Big corporate Goliath being outwitted and outgunned by the guerrilla tactics of David armed with the 1000BC equivalent of Remington XP-100 (rated the most accurate hand gun in the world). David knew he’d win so long as he improvised out of the reach of lumbering Goliath’s but what’s baffling is that Saul and the other spectators  only foresaw this as a toe to toe duel because that’s how you did things in those days in Israel. They were thinking in “like-we’ve-always-done-it” terms rather than let’s improvise and win terms.

In business, stories of small, loose thinking winners include Nike winning as a Vietcong style upstart founded in 1964 against Adidas founded 1948 – Nike is now twice the size of Adidas, Facebook against My Space (in June 2006 My Space captured 80% of social networking traffic (up from 76% in April). Facebook was second with 7.6%. The ball has been dropped in most markets we are looking at and no one really knows where it is. Better to improvise rather than pretend the ball’s still in sight.

We all tend to overestimate power whether it’s physical like Goliath’s or exploited by people who feel they’re expected to flaunt it. That’s a high risk strategy on their part but some seem to think it worth taking. Chuck Prince ex CEO and Chairman of Citigroup certainly seemed to think so as he made the defining quote of the 2008 crash on the very eve of the credit crunch:-

“When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”

 You make decisions that solve problems by taking each on its merits and not being hamstrung by a rigid plan. Strategic plans can make one option blind. Remember Mike Tyson:

“Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth”

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