Opinionista Jon Foster-Pedley 18 August 2019

Finding our way out of the Alps – believe in the map you have and you can do it

The great complexity theorist Ralph Stacey once defined most conventional strategy as simply an anxiety-reducing device for managers in a world of mostly unfathomable complexity. The confidence of having a plan at least calms the nerves enough to allow co-ordinated movement, and yes, with movement results can start to happen. It’s not strategy experts that we need, but expert strategists.

What is a strategy? Too often it’s a predictable portfolio of clichéd tools and frameworks – a baked-in algorithm of mission, vision, SWOTS and KPIs, uncritically presented as corporate conformity that deludes as it comforts. Its sheer logic and rationality blind-sides people to the reality that life is complex, shifting, relational and emergent. “No plan”, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army before World War 1, famously said, “survives first contact with the enemy.”

One of my mentors, the great complexity theorist Ralph Stacey, once defined most conventional strategy as simply an anxiety-reducing device for managers in a world of mostly unfathomable complexity. The confidence of having a plan, endorsed by the imprimatur of porticoed business schools and confident consultants, at least calms the nerves enough to allow co-ordinated movement, and yes, with movement results can start to happen. It’s not strategy experts that we need, but expert strategists.

We could do all do with a bit of certainty today. We are living in a real-life real-time D-VUCAD world, an extrapolation of the acronym, VUCA, coined by American army officers at the US War College ironically to help describe a post-Cold War world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – to which we add today the two Ds of disruption and diversity. Ever more apt now as we feel our way in our post-State Capture/ RET fight back/ SOE implosion reality.

In fact, you might argue that it’s a strategy that got us here in the first place; strategies that put profit before prosperity definitely laid the groundwork for the corporate collusion and greed that abetted state capture and corruption. Strategies to avoid ever facing the consequences of those acts led to the Stalingrad Defence of Jacob Zuma and the successful competing narratives of the fightback strategy in what is rapidly becoming a post-truth era, where no one actually knows what to believe, helping to rationalise wrongdoing and even, perversely, demonise those who dare to point it out.

A real strategy isn’t any of this, indeed real strategy would have helped us avoid this. A real strategy is almost an intangible, like what we called airmanship when I was a pilot – a portmanteau of hard and soft skills that create an almost intuitive awareness, a broadening of consciousness and identification of patterns and vectors that borders on the prescient.

To be a successful pilot, your strategy involves getting to your ultimate destination alive and unharmed – your passengers too. To achieve this, you need to be able to see what’s going on, to understand what you’re seeing and whether to react to it or to ignore it, all the time exercising your situational awareness for threats might have cropped up like bad weather, instrument failure or other aircraft in your vicinity.

Being fixated on profit and not the mission is akin to staring at one instrument and narrowing perceptions until all inner and outer cues become distant and dulled. This tunnelling of consciousness makes subtle cues silent and vague inferences unnoticed. The context recedes until, too late, we awake in a crisis. Too low, too slow, surrounded by mountains and a disaster is inevitable. Many of our corporates did just that in their rush for profits and to return value to their shareholders at any cost. Many of our state institutions did the same, pandering to the whims of their political principals while ignoring their management principles.

Had they had greater situational awareness, or mindfulness in this case, they would have been better able to withstand the suborning that ultimately led to the corruption or fraud that they perpetrated. They weren’t able though and we are all paying the price for that today; indeed, some of the more ominous news reports suggest we might be paying for it for generations to come.

We need to be trained to think of more than profits, more than our own selfish needs. We need to have the purpose that becomes our true north, allowing us to re-orientate even when we think we are lost. During World War I, a group of Hungarian soldiers were sent on a patrol in the Swiss Alps, when it started to snow in the mountains. They became lost and disoriented. After two days, they started to give up hope and became resigned to dying from exposure when one of the soldiers rummaged in his kit bag and found a map crushed into the bottom. They took it eagerly and found their way back down to the valley, where they were reunited with their platoon commander.

When they told him what had happened, he asked to see the map. To his, and their, astonishment, it wasn’t a map of Alps but a map of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France and Spain 1,300kms away. The map, although in truth wholly impractical, had given them the necessary stimulus to rediscover their purpose and find their way home.

Strategy matters to us because it is a code for intelligent adaptation, thinking and setting direction. Our perennial problem is that we confuse strategic thinkers with strategic planners, the people who clean up the table after the thinkers are finished. We are confusing narrow hyper-articulate shamans with strategists; strategy is a discipline with a deep sense of managing your own perceptions, you cannot be in a real war and fantasise what the enemy is doing, you have to know.

At the moment in South Africa, it is increasingly difficult to tell fact from fable, in the process becoming side-tracked by minutiae when in fact the only question is how we should be getting back on track. Our leaders should be coming up with solutions to reduce the yawning inequality and the desperate plight of the growing legions of unemployed. As for us, ordinary South Africans, we need to develop a strategy that does just that in our daily lives, where we make a difference in our companies and in our communities. On great, common and unifying purpose is to reduce the South African Gini coefficient, making a thrivable world for all our kids, for with such inequality of life no good future can arrive for them.

It’s an immensely difficult task because the great metanarratives of the last 100 years: capitalism, communism and fascism, have all failed. Few of the strategists ever strategised outside of those narrow confines, instead, they have mostly been apologists for the various failures. In this vacuum, as we blunder in the confusion of our own Alps, we need to develop a set of values about what matters in life, that enriches us and makes our existence worthwhile – and then strategise around achieving that.

Maybe that’s the map of the Pyrenees we have all been looking for. DM

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