Thinking strategically; flies, bees, pike and shoulder blades

Most strategy training talks about the importance of developing a strategic plan and then aligning employees with the strategy.   This is an outmoded view of strategy.  I prefer to see strategy as a thinking and doing process – with the focus on achieving success tomorrow – rather than today.  Many managers struggle to find the time to do this strategic thinking and find it even harder to act strategically.

Learning from Mr Pike

The pike is one of the most efficient, lean predating machines in freshwater.  If you put a small pike in an aquarium with a bunch of minnows it will demonstrate its predatory skills with frightening efficiency.  If you separate the pike from the minnows using a sheet of perspex the pike will continue to launch its attacks for a little while.  And then it will just give up.  You can then remove the sheet of perspex and the pike will still believe that it can no longer catch its prey – and will simply starve to death.

Flies and Bees

Imagine putting half a dozen house flies and half a dozen bumble bees in  glass bottle.  The bottle is placed with its base towards a window and the open end towards the middle of the room.  The bees are strategically aligned to fly towards the sunlight.  The presence of the glass is a mystery to them.  They buzz and buzz away at the bottom of the glass driving towards the sunshine – until they too die.  The flies on the other hand are much less ‘strategically aligned’.  They fly in far more random patterns and within a few minutes most of them will have found their way to freedom.

Native Americans and Cracked Shoulder Blades

Some native American tribes used to use shoulder blades to help them plan their hunt.  The night before the hunt would leave they would throw a shoulder blade from a buffalo or deer on the camp fire.  In the morning the bone would have a pattern of cracks caused by the heat of the fire.  The pattern of these cracks – which was essentially random would be used to indicate to the hunting party in which direction they should seek their quarry.  So why would they rely on such a random way of choosing their hunting grounds?  Because without using a randomiser like this they would tend to over work the most productive hunting grounds and threaten the sustainability of the tribe and its environment.

These three stories illustrate something about the nature of strategy and strategic thinking – the perils of over specialisation, the risks of alignment, the problems of holding on to outdated learning and the importance of diversity and randomisation.  I am sure that analysis and planning have their place – but it is thinking and acting strategically that creates real value.