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Following the publishing of his latest book, “Playing to Win”, Roger Martin has made a paramount distinction between strategy and planning. Having the greatest respect for Roger Martin’s thinking, I usually take his insights as foundational. Since foundational insights are few and far between, there’s a likelihood that other thinkers have come across similar distinctions. I didn’t have to search for long to find echoing insights in the work of Russell Ackoff, systems thinker emeritus, and Dave Snowden, complexity guru.

Rusell Ackoff has made a foundational distinction between “reactive”, “preactive” and “interractive’ planning. In Ackoff’s words reactive planning suffers from bottom-up myopia, while top-down preactive planning erroneously assumes the future is controllable. This leaves us with “interractive” planning as the only viable way to reach a desired future: that of interactively participating in its creation starting from the present moment.

Dave Snowden’s “safe to fail trial and error” approach to complex environments seems to reinforce Ackoff’s insight about the fallacy of preactive planning. In high complexity environments, predicting the future is a losing proposition according to Snowden. And so, the best one can do is to “probe” through small experiments that start in the present and point in the direction of a desired future state.

I will conclude with a concrete example of the power of systems thinking: by converging three different but related perspectives, we can reach new (emergent) foundational insights. I propose the insight in this case is this: complexity is what forces a distinction between strategy and planning. Without complexity, strategy and planning might as well have been one and the same thing.

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