"In business the survival and flourishing of an organisation is most often associated with the ability of its strategists to create a distinctive identity by confronting and rising above others. Yet not all organisational accomplishment can be explained with recourse to deliberate choice and purposeful design on the part of strategic actors. This book shows why. Using examples from the world of business, economics, military strategy, politics and philosophy, it argues that collective success may inadvertently emerge as a result of the everyday coping actions of a multitude of individuals, none of whom intended to contribute to any preconceived plan. A consequence of this claim is that a paradox exists in strategic interventions, one that no strategist can afford to ignore. The more directly and deliberately a strategic goal is single-mindedly sought, the more likely it is that such calculated instrumental action eventually works to undermine its own initial success"--Provided by publisher.
Is it possible to think differently about strategy? Our Western worldview is deeply committed to an activist conception of strategy. Indeed, "if strategy amounts to anything, it is predicated upon a sense of being able to do something, of intervening deliberately to change the course of events in one's favour." In its worst excesses, organisational strategy boils down to a battle plan, an offensive campaign to strangle competitors and pillage untapped market potential. A more evolved conception sees a strategic rationale emerge at the intersection of environmental pressures, the possibilities offered by internal resources and the articulation of a realistic future goal. However, it is almost impossible to wean so-called 'decision-makers' from 'staking out a position' and mobilising resources to get there. This 'means-ends' thinking is deeply embedded in our Western mindset. It trails a whole 'impact'-measurement industry in its wake.
Pragmatically we might ask: 'Does it work?' There are many examples of ambitious strategies that went nowhere, or gave way to negative unintended consequences. This book discusses a number of these cases. More fundamentally the question arises whether we aren't fooling ourselves, believing that we can design and control interventions in systems that are rife with uncertainty and impossible to oversee. And then even more foundationally we might start to reflect on the appropriateness of the conception of human cognition and agency that is underlying the rational strategy model. Indeed, "its founding assumption is that people come to know what is ‘out there’ only by representing what is out there ‘in here’ in the form of symbols and mental models that are produced from processing the information initially received by the senses. According to this perspective, acts of cognition and representation precede acts of doing." Theoretically, philosophically and spiritually this reflects an impoverished worldview.
The authors of this book provide a systemic alternative to this individualist and cognitivist stance. Their position relies on principles that ground a relational and enactive epistemology. These principles have been articulated by key thinkers in sociology (Elias), cybernetics (Bateson), anthropology (Ingold), philosophy (Jullien), and cognition theory (Varela). Chia and Holt argue for 'a weak methodological individualism'. Human beings appear as a relationally constituted ‘self’ that is associated with phronesis (the practical wisdom to fluently interact with an environment that is ever shape shifting and hard to decode). Agent and environment become inseparable. Acting purposively appears as essentially relational. "Self-interest is not the competitive assertion of interests at the inevitable expense of others but an opening up of oneself to things and events that are different, and that therefore resonate with unrealized potential." This signals a shift to a more humble and also more humane way of being in the world whereby life is, paradoxically perhaps, "apprehended not as a problem of realizing ever more refined individual purposes in inherently complex and uncertain contexts but as a shifting array of potential value, of which we humans are but one expression."
Extrapolating this philosophical (and spiritual) position we end up with a very different conception of strategy. Because it reflects an acknowledgment that we rely on experience and perceptiveness rather than on formulated knowledge. The governing metaphor is 'wayfinding'. "We know as we go." Strategy emerges spontaneously from the complex milieu of social actions and interactions without anyone deliberately willing it to be so. This is 'strategy without design'. It is more a reflection of imbued 'style' than the result of willed 'substance'. Rather than being bound up with 'staking out a position', "strategic efficacy is found in escape from positions, from commitments and from objectives. (...) Strategy without design is about making room, the limits of which are not boundaries, but the edges where things begin their essential unfolding."
Every ten years or so, I read a book that truly blows my mind. This is that book. I read voraciously. I read across non-fiction genres, including business, design, organizational sociology, and philosophy. This book somehow covers all of that wide area, and still feels focused. Its ambition is to explain everything from business strategy to the phenomenonology of management. The authors succeed in sketching a philosophically robust theory which somehow has comforting practical implications. Well worth the read, but only if you dig Heideggerian analyses of why most businesses are run by idiots.
The iconic image of a 'strategist' is the chess player. The doer, who has plans, goals and purpose. But that player is often defeated. Their grand schemes often fail. Their confident predictions about the world five minutes from now evaporate as the hot air they always were. So is there a different way of approaching the task?
In 'Strategy without Design', Chia and Holt propose that strategy could also reflect those intuitive, cultural and situationally derived habits of mind and deed that, small step by small step help us find a way through life's challenges. As they put it, it is the 'unconsciously acquired practice complexes..and the patterns of regularity that we call strategy'.
In this view, strategy reflects the bundle of knowledge and practices which we all develop to navigate life, as socially constituted systems, with our practices reflecting our culture, histories, antecedents and traditions as much as any specific intentionality. In day to day life, many of us are incredibly successful at managing complex social tasks, achieving critical goals of well being and influence across a variety of audiences, personal and professional. In professional politics, many practice the 'art' of politics, shifting this way and that to keep and maintain their coalitions. Some even do it so well that they are seen to dominate their era (think a Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the US, or Robert Menzies in Australia.). These are all successful ways of acting in the world, yet none of these approaches involve written plans or ends-ways-means calculations.
Strategy Without Design is a beguiling idea that is explored in an indirect, sometimes oblique way. As the authors note in the epilogue, in their view 'the writer does not collect or build things, but tries to encounter and absorb them as they are, in all their inconsistency and contradiction, and all their latency and potential'. This form of writing, which is very common within critical theory scholarship can be illuminating at breaking open the cracks of light, the 'potentialities' of alternate ways of thinking. But it can also prove frustratingly illusive.
Not so much in revealing its ideas, as in grappling with them in their full complexities. I went into this book very hopeful for its value. I walk away somewhat unconvinced. The authors have a tendency to critique all planning approaches by reference to the occasional catastrophic failure (a questionable basis), and then never subjecting the value of their own approach to such a test. Perhaps since they're only 'encountering' such a view, rather than building it out.
I also wonder if a different word would better capture the spirit of what they seek. Rather than 'strategy', what I came to see Chia and Holt as describing was in fact 'Statecraft'. Wherein leading politicians navigate the ship of state day by day, hour by hour, document and meeting by document and meeting, towards often unexpressed but valuable goals of advantage and thriving. Their sense of expertise, habit, tacit knowledge, and culturally bound constitution seems to me to better match what we think of when we imagine the 'statesman' (statesperson?) as distinct from the 'strategist'. Though to be fair, within the world of business strategy which Chia and Holt write in, there is no synonymous term.
These concerns aside, I do think this is a valuable and insightful book. The authors spend quite a bit of time exploring the distinctions between methodological collectivism and methodological individualism, a revealing assessment for considering where we believe strategic ideas and impulses come from, and proposing their own 'weak' form of individualism. In doing so, they locate their work in the tradition of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and the Scottish Enlightenment, who emphasise the individual made by a society and with great humility about the limits of the individual - as opposed to the European tradition of Descarte and others for whom the individual can rationally build out their world, one reasoned proposition at a time. I've long thought Hayek is deeply under-appreciated as a philosopher, and this book helps show his prescient insight again and again. (especially for any studying complexity theories)
This is definitely a book to chew through, but for all those wanting to really think hard about what we mean by the term strategy and how humans achieve their needs in a challenging world, this is a thought-provoking analysis. I'm sure I'll return to it many times in the years to come.