Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are strategists supposed to have crystal balls?

If so, I'm in trouble. Understanding even a fraction of the world right now is nearly impossible, so I give myself zero chance of predicting accurately what it'll be like tomorrow. At my wife's family reunion this past weekend, my father-in-law argued that Obamacare makes future business costs unpredictable, and businesses are paralyzed by unpredictability. If that's the case, it's a wonder any business ever gets done at all.

Random events and complexity play panchinko with the world, and where things end up in the future is everybody's wild guess. Doubt me? Then peruse your local library's stash of dated "what the world will look like a few years from now" books published a few years back. Technology predictions, market predictions, economic predictions, global socio-political predictions--in hindsight they all come up short, and many now seem downright silly.

Still think I'm wrong? Well, I couldn't be any more wrong than the "experts" psychologist Philip Tetlock studied in his book "Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?" Here's an excerpt from a New Yorker article covering Tetlock's work:

[Tetlock] picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Would Canada disintegrate?And so on. By the end of the study, in 2003, the experts had made 82,361 forecasts . . .

The results were unimpressive. On the first scale, the experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned an equal probability to all three outcomes—if they had given each possible future a thirty-three-per-cent chance of occurring. Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys . . ."


But for some reason, those of us in technology seem desperate to figure out where the future is headed, so that we can meet her at a crossroads in time for our big money payout. And from my experience, strategists are often given the leading role in this fool's guessing game.

So what does a strategist do then? In this case, I totally trust Wikipedia's definition of strategy:

A strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a specific goal. Strategy is all about gaining (or being prepared to gain) a position of advantage over adversaries or best exploiting emerging possibilities. As there is always an element of uncertainty about future, strategy is more about a set of options ("strategic choices") than a fixed plan. It derives from the Greek "στρατηγία" (strategia), "office of general, command, generalship".
In other words, we're the coaches finding ways, big and small, for our teams on the field to achieve victory--not the SI columnists and bookies predicting next season's Super Bowl champ. In other words, at its best, we strategists shouldn't be attempting to predict the future. We should be trying to mold our small piece of it.