Seeing Beyond This Tipping Point: Now is the Time for an Innovator’s Approach to Strategy

Highlights

    • In this time of non-linear transformation, the ultimate winners will be those agile companies that are thinking now about their near-term survival AND their long-term advantage.
    • A ‘dual-path’ strategy includes both ‘Today-for-Today’ and ‘Today-for-Tomorrow’ strategies that require new methods and tools to create.
    • The last 20 years of innovation research and development has resulted in a rich set of methods and tools that can be applied to create strategic options in conditions of great uncertainty.
    • Now is the time to sprint ahead of the competition by applying to strategy the tools that innovators have proven to be effective.

“For planning and implementing strategy, the need is for a broad definition that encompasses both ‘today-for-today’ and ‘today-for-tomorrow’ … The primordial task of leadership is the strategic one of moving the company towards the future.”

– Derek F. Abell

This is a time of non-linear transformation. It is a time of tipping points and disruption. Many things that were normal one year, one month or one week ago will not be the same one week, one month or one year from now. In this time of non-linear change, companies certainly need to be thinking about their immediate survival and life during and immediately after the momentous changes taking place. But this is also a time when thinking about the world beyond the immediate aftermath can make your company stronger, more resilient and, to use a term coined by Nassim Talib, anti-fragile – becoming stronger not weaker in the face of stress

A recent article by a group of McKinsey partners posited that what is needed now is a “plan-ahead team to get ahead of the next stage of the crisis. The plan-ahead team will deliver a strategic crisis-action plan to guide and accelerate your decision making.” These are good recommendations and companies would be well served to follow the process described in that article. They do not, however, go far enough.

What is needed, in addition to a planning methodology, is a new strategy creation methodology that is ideally suited to these times of maximum uncertainty. The systems, processes, methods and tools that innovation practitioners have been developing and perfecting over the past two decades are ideally suited to this task.

Dual-Path Strategy

Military strategy is a frequently used touchpoint for informing corporate strategy processes. What is often missed however, is the distinction between strategy for winning today’s conflict and strategy for waging or preventing tomorrows war. These two distinct types of strategies are what Derek Abell has called ‘Today-for-Today’ and ‘Today-for-Tomorrow’ strategies. Companies need to have a ‘dual-path’ for their strategic thinking and efforts that include both.

In these strategic efforts, it is critical to focus on the day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month for near-term survival with a Today-for-Today strategy. Most of a company’s strategic attention is rightfully spent on winning the current war, the Today-for-Today path. But it is also necessary to prepare for a future that could look quite different than what a strategic-crisis-action-plan considers. This is a strategy that looks beyond one or two weeks, months, or years from now. It is the strategy that is born in the tumult of current change and that plays itself out over the next 5 to 10 years in ways that are not always obvious. It is a dual-path strategy that is both focused on today and the immediate future and on the ultimate, long-term sustainability of the firm.

Even in this period of rapid, non-linear, disruptive change, two factors argue for spending time and attention on both paths of this dual-path strategy.

  • Being “in the moment” – The rapid changes happening now are ones we can directly observe, analyze and experience in real-time. There will likely never be another opportunity to have these direct experiences and use them to inform our long-term thinking. There will be much we can look at in retrospect. But the perspective of immediate experience (both positive and negative) will only be available once.
  • Imagining how changes will unfold – Many of the rapid changes we are seeing now will only fully play themselves out over a much longer period than 2 years. Some things will change immediately. Other changes that look like they are significant will revert to the way they were before. Still other changes that don’t look too significant will unfold over longer time horizons in unexpected ways that could have large impacts. Starting with the changes happening now, it is also useful to think about how these many changes will unfold over time. This will bring a deeper and more nuanced perspective to the future strategy.

Used in the right way, the current situation can make a company stronger, more resilient, and even anti-fragile.  This includes every employee, customer, and stakeholder.  By committing to creating a dual-path strategy you make sure your company can not only weather the current storm, you make sure it will be a leader in the new world that is to come.

To do this, you will need the ability to do the following:

  • Anticipate future transformations (especially the non-linear kind) that are starting now and will unfold over time.
  • Create multiple strategic options based on plausible futures
  • Make decisions under deep uncertainty among multiple strategic options
  • Experiment with strategic options in order to exercise or abandon them

The approach and tools needed to develop this dual-path strategy are the methods and tools of the innovator.

The Innovator’s Approach to Strategy

The dual-path can benefit from the systems, processes, methods and tools of the innovator that have been developed and refined over the past two decades. The innovator’s toolbox is designed to allow one to think clearly about uncertain futures. This is the innovator’s job and it is accomplished by doing the following.

Emergent and Iterative Learning – Learning about, and understanding, how the future can plausibly unfold in myriad ways is a fundamental skill that is necessary for innovation. Understanding deepens, nuance is gleaned, and insight emerges through the iterative deepening learning methods that innovators employ.

Complex and Holistic Systems Thinking – Future worlds are examined as an interconnected system whose various components interact in non-obvious ways. Beyond routine analysis and prediction of past correlations, future complexity requires the innovation skills of qualitative synthesis, systems thinking and enlightened storytelling to achieve understanding and communicate possibilities.

Options Mindset and Decision Making under Uncertainty – Creating many types and numbers of potential strategic options and shaping and focusing on the best few is necessary to deal with inherent uncertainty. You need the right decision-making tools and methods, the ones developed and used by innovators.

Most importantly, innovation is a process that is creative first, then analytic. It is evidence-based, not data-driven. It is a process that expands the range of potential realities. Planning is necessary, but plans need to be derived from the visions we create. In this time of non-linear change, it is the creative approach that will let us rethink and recreate an anti-fragile strategy.

Now is the Right Time for a Dual-Path Strategy Approach

The transformation we are in right now is unique. It is requiring urgent and unprecedented action and causing new behaviors, individually and collectively. It is creating stresses that most of us have not experienced before. It is a time for physical distancing and social togetherness. It is a time for action and advocacy, but also a time for reflection. It may seem odd to advocate for long-term thinking when things are changing at lightning speed and it takes supreme effort just to survive and adapt to the sudden new reality. But that is exactly what is both needed and possible right now.

Some of us now have time that is, perhaps, unlike any time we have ever had in our professional careers. While our top priority is helping our companies through this unprecedented time, we often find that we have some individual time in which we can contemplate and think deeply. Many of us, whose days were only recently consumed by constant meetings, immediate priorities and looming performance metrics, are now finding time to take a breath and do some deep thinking. What we do with this time will, in many respects, determine how well we, and our companies, do 2, 5, or 10 years from now.

Amidst all the urgency, focus most of your attention on the now, but spend at least a little of your precious time on what you and your company want to be when a new, future equilibrium is reached. This is the dual-path thinking that will be needed to make you, your team and your company strong, resilient and anti-fragile.

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