Captain E. J. Smith spoke confidently, “I cannot imagine any condition which could cause this ship to flounder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel” he told reporters ahead of the maiden voyage of the SS Titanic in April 1912.
It is certain that the future is uncertain - but organisations dedicate sometimes vast resources to anticipating it anyway. Strategy ‘gurus’ (perhaps so ubiquitous as so few people can spell ‘charlatan’) preach that ‘the more dynamic the situation, the farther ahead the leader must look’. Such advice is both illogical and dangerous - for the more dynamic the situation, the poorer your foresight will be. The more uncertain the future, the more the essential logic should be ‘take a strong position and create options.' All attempts to conquer the complex, unknowable future and make it succumb to a visionary’s will be at best, idealistic, and at worst, dangerous.
But engineering the ideal future is at the heart of much ‘formal strategising’ in organisations. Meetings, discussions and plans aim to build consensus around perceptions, goals and roles to support strategic actions - despite evidence that these have little to no positive effect on a company’s profitability. Profitable firms are as likely to strategise informally - making use of informal channels of communication and evaluation. Formalisation is part of modern business’ obsession with engineering outcomes - picturing ideal futures, identifying gaps to overcome, and planning the steps to be taken - often in excruciatingly precise detail that seeks to confer some sense of authority.
Formal strategising about the future often fails as the managers tasked with building such plans have very inaccurate perceptions not only of markets and industry they operate in, but of their own organisation and its capabilities as well. In such cases, formalising the flaws amplifies the likely harm to the organisation. And even when the organisation can claim some authority about its operating environment and can boast about the talent it manages it can simply mobilise around a future that’s just plain wrong. IBM’s CEO in 1948, Thomas J Watson, confidently forecasted ‘a world market for about five computers’ which helped lead the leader down a blind alley for decades until a nimbler, less encumbered Microsoft revealed the fault lying at the heart of IBMs strategy.
Organisations can approach strategy in a more naturalised way - taking lessons from evolution:
Evolutionary approaches seek to build on awareness of what's really happening, rather than wasting resources anticipating what might happen. The hubris of Captain Smith - and many stewards of organisations navigating choppy waters - testifies to the danger of being blind to the many futures we clearly can’t see: no matter how visionary we claim to be.