I am reading Simon Sinek’s Start With Why at the moment and it made me think about why I do strategy. Sometimes I’m not sure if strategy is the right word. So in this post I am going to explore what it is that I do and why I do it.
Some people ask “Why?” Others ask “How?” I am firmly in the first camp. Ever since I can remember I have asked:
Why does that happen?
Why does this work like this?
Can I change that?
The reason is that I like to know how things works. Even better, I am driven to understand how things work. Once I understand them I like to drive them.
The Drive to Understand
In my very first job years ago I worked as an archivist looking after engineering records. The first few weeks were really frustrating for me as I couldn’t understand why anything was organised the way it was.
Signalling records for Crewe were associated with civil records for Crawley (and no it was not as simple as alphabetical organisation).
Gradually as I saw more and more of the archives I realised that no one understood how it was organised. The way that it worked was that everyone who started was taught the way that it worked. As new records arrived they were added according to a new schema that the staff member though appropriate. As far as I could tell this had been going on for decades.
The Drive to Improve
I drove my boss mad.
Why is it like this? How are you going to make it better? Why can’t we find anything quickly?
Eventually in exasperation he said to me
Denis – since you are so clever how should we organise it?
I should have been prepared, but as I said I was young and naive. No matter a few hours later I had the answer and then the great organisation started.
It was awesome. The archive became a place of beauty and then it became absolutely boring as there were no more useful changes that could be made.
What I do is I see clearly why things are the way that there are and see where they should be.
Philosophy as Understanding
Part of this is my philosophy degree (yep I’m one of those annoying logic choppers). I suspect that that improved my skills rather than created the desire.
The underlying desire is to understand and organise the structure of reality. That’s what Aristotle and Plato were really trying do. That’s the essence of philosophy.
Business strategy sells a lot better than Business philosophy.
What I’ve learnt is two things.
Clarity is the ability to see and understand how a business works under the surface. It’s like having X-Ray vision. The bones and joints show the way that the company has to move. Without the muscle, skin and clothes to hide them everything is so much clearer.
Pathways is being able to see not only how the skeleton can and does move. It means being able to see the osteoporosis and the healed fractures that inhibit movement. Even better it means being able to see what would happen if we start changing the bone structure and swapping them and the joints out.
That’s getting a bit Frankenstein’s monsterish! Definitely extended the analogy too far.
Let’s continue though as it can get beautifully weird.
A business is meant to achieve a goal. That may be mundane. As Simon Sinek put it – Dell makes computers to make money. There’s not a lot of why in that. Apple disrupts the status quo and it makes devices that do that. That’s a big powerful why.
A company that has a powerful why like that is like an animal designed by an intelligent designer. The intelligent designer understands the purpose of an animal – a crab lives to pick small pieces of food from the surf at the edge of the sea – and designs it so that the animal is just so. The crab is given a shell to protect it from the tumbling waves, eyes on stalks to let it see swooping gulls and tasty morsels.
Like an intelligent designer I swap claws for wings and eyes stalks for compound eyes to help my corporate beasties survive in the environments they find themselves in (whether it is a Red Sea or Blue Ocean).
This isn’t how evolution works. It is how corporate strategy works as we try and force the pace of evolution.
There is a vast amount of data that is fed back to us in terms of market conditions, customer response and employee productivity. This is the raw juice of corporate evolution. Little experiments allow us to mimic natural selection.
What works far better is when is when we see clearly and can accelerate the process. Farmers have done this for tens of thousands of years increasing the yields of crops and cows. I do strategy to enable businesses to do the same.
If the process was simple, if it was like natural selection if would be boring. Because we have the ability to change how things work it is an external delight
Why I do Strategy
That’s why I do strategy. I do it because I can’t do anything else. I do it because it lets me spend all day every day understanding the world and imagining ways to change it
Some people see things as they are and ask why
I see things that never were and ask why not
I have a perfect design – just like the crab in the surf.