Friday, July 8, 2022

Strategic Thinking and a Thousand First Steps

First steps are the best steps
I am a strategist by nature.  I love to imagine the wondrous world of the future and plot out the complex web of technological innovation, cultural shifts, and geopolitical developments that will get us there.  One of my favorite novels growing up, was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  The book’s premise is that Harry Seldon is mathematically able to predict thousands of years into the future and creates a small society to be ready for when that future arrives.  Seeing the future is exhilarating and intoxicating.  It is also of course, ridiculous.

Our ability to predict the future is HORRIBLE.  Sure, it’s easy to predict the future of something like a basketball game by a few seconds (most of the time).  But how about for every city, every nation, and the whole world.  Webs start to get interwoven in complex ways that are impractical to model.  And with each second you add, more branches form.  They multiply logarithmically until it becomes impossible to track even a simplified model of the world in even the largest computing systems.  Now try doing this in your head.

But there is always a better way.  Luckily, most people already do the first part.  First, imagine the future you want.  Then build the ladder to getting there by deducing what needs to happen.  You need to build this out both forward in time from where we are now and backward in time from the goal to make sure the paths meet.  Map out a few alternatives.  Do many of them share the same first step?  Great.  Pick the best plan, and start executing.

Now this is where many organizations and people fail.  The plan has been made, and now it’s time to make it happen.  That means indoctrinating people in “The Path Forward”, putting our heads down, and executing until the goal is achieved.  After all the “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”  Just keep swimming.  This is great if your goal was to walk a thousand miles on a treadmill.  You’re plan can be as simple as: 1) Get on treadmill 2) Press start 3) Walk.

You can put on your headphones and safely close your eyes.  But what if your goal was to walk to New York from LA?  Sure, you need to make a plan.  You plot out your route, plan stops, book hotels, and pack supplies.  But you’re not going to do this one with your eyes closed.  You know that you might have to change your plans because of fatigue, weather, or just plain boredom.  And if you’re really smart, you’ll plan to reevaluate your plan and make modifications at specific points along the way.  Why don’t you just make those modifications now?  The plan is already the best plan you can make given the information you know right now.  But you’ll learn more once you get started.

It’s a recursive loop.  First pick your goal.  Then plot a path.  Take the first step.  Reassess your goal.  Replot your path.  Repeat.  That strategic thinking is crucial for picking the first step so that it fits a plan.  But that’s it.  Your strategy should have a lifetime of one step.  After that one step, the world is different.  You have also hopefully gained new skills and knowledge.  Reassess your strategy, make a new plan, and find your next “first step”.  By iteratively strategizing and acting, you will be able to constantly adapt until the future you seek is only one step away.

Most organizations find this hard because they separate the strategists from the implementers.  Someone comes up with a strategy and then throws it over the fence for the monkeys to implement.  They don’t return until the goal is achieved… or isn’t.  Innovative organizations deal with ambiguous futures that require constant pivoting and modifications to the strategy.  And thus, it is important to develop a culture and a process where the team can bounce back and forth between periods of exploratory strategizing and evaluation and heads down implementation.  They are very different tasks, and so you need to be deliberate about switching between them and maintaining a one to one ratio between strategizing and implementing.  Plan to rebuild your strategy after the first step.  Then take first steps until you’ve arrived at the future you created.