There are many models for strategy under uncertainty but few useful metaphors. Just what does strategy under complex, unpredictable conditions look like? Picture yourself attempting to cross a fast moving stream by stepping on small, irregular, slippery and so unstable rocks. Your vision is clear: get to the other side of the stream. You could sit there and contemplate a viable path across the stream, but your plan will be sketchy at best. For one, the water partially obscures many of the stones you’re about to use, making it impossible to make accurate predictions in terms of stability. Off you go. You find out quickly that the best approach is keeping a lightfoot and moving very fast. You never want to lean all your weight on any particular stone. You use each stone with the assumption that it will roll – and so you minimize your time spent on each step. You improvise – you focus on the next viable step, and only see the few stones around it.
This is the essence of agile strategy. Improvisation, exploration of various plausible opportunities without betting your entire livelihood on any. In Dave Snowden’s (Cognitive Edge) words, many “safe-to-fail” experiments as the basis for emergent success.
Now contrast this with the heavy procedural footprint of the “classical” strategy development process: large groups, plenty of meetings, the expectation of compliance to plan, the credo of a “stable” future.
To illustrate the absurdity of defacto corporate strategy in the face of complexity, let’s take the metaphor a step further. Picture two corporate teams attempting to cross the same stream. Corporate Team A is an “aligned” organization – they are shackled at the ankles. They also have a carefully orchestrated plan with each person assigned main stepping stones and even contingent stepping stones. Corporate Team B is given the end goal: getting to the other side. They are given complete autonomy from each other and freedom to pick their steps along the way. Who do you think is going to win in this particular contest? Over the long term, whose team members do you think will gain self-confidence and exhibit independent judgement?