The Strategy Paradox
The strategy paradox lies in the fact that the characteristics that we typically associate with success are also systematically associated with total failure. That is, the strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure. Author Michael Raynor, says that resolving this paradox requires a new way of thinking about strategy and uncertainty.
In his research he found that strategies normally associated with success look very much the same as strategies that in fact lead to failure as well. What was interesting is that while successful and failed strategies look the same, strategies that lead to mediocre financial performance look very different from strategies associated with both successful and failed strategies. This leads us to the conclusion that the opposite of success is not failure, but mediocrity. So to assume that we are safe with a compelling vision, commitment and a clear focus—all defining elements of successful strategies—is misguided as these elements are also systematically connected with some of the greatest strategic disasters. The real issue is that these elements must be based on an accurate view of the future, and not surprisingly even the best minds often get this wrong. Naturally, the further out you go the greater the degree of strategic uncertainty.
One of the reasons the future is difficult to predict is because it is random. In other words, the past isn’t always a good indicator of the future. Randomness enters in your analysis because at some point you have to confine it. You have to leave some data out, thus reducing your accuracy. To avoid this “we find ourselves compelled to build a theory of everything in order to predict anything.” Not practical—analysis paralysis.
Another issue is cause and effect. Accurately determining why something happened before—initial conditions—is a judgment call. Even if we are correct, recreating those conditions exactly is not generally doable. (See The Halo Effect.)
What are we to do? Raynor suggests implementing what he calls strategic flexibility and using what he calls requisite uncertainty to allocate responsibility for managing uncertainty vertically through an organization. That is, calibrating the focus of each level of the hierarchy to the uncertainties it faces.
For instance, Board members should be looking ten or more years out and asking, “What is the appropriate level of strategic risk for a firm to take? What resources should be devoted to mitigating risk? What sacrifices in performance are acceptable in exchange for lower strategic risk?” CEOs looking out five to ten years, should ask, “What strategic uncertainties does the company face? What strategic options are needed to cope with those uncertainties? In other words, it falls to the CEO, and the rest of the senior team, to find ways to create the strategic risk profile the board has mandated for the firm.
Moving down the hierarchy, operational divisions dealing a time horizon of two to five years should ask, “What commitments should we make in order to achieve our performance targets? For these folks, it’s no longer about mitigating strategic risks, but making strategic commitments. And then managers with a short term time of horizon of 3 months to a year should ask, “How can we best execute the commitments that have been made in order to achieve our performance targets? There are no strategic choices to make at this level, because the time horizons are too short.
What is useful about this book is that it is not just for CEOs. As just shown, people at all levels in an organization deal with a certain amount of uncertainty. Regardless of the timeframe they are dealing with or looking at, the tools outlined here are valuable for managing that risk.
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