Building an Ecology

One of the strategic ideas coming to the surface these days relates to a business model called “venture building”.

The idea here is not to build a single product for a single market. Instead, it is to nurture people who are loosely connected (networked) who have various ideas and connect them into project groups as needed. The goal is to become more flexible and fast moving.

Does it work? First, we should keep in mind that this is not really a new business model. PARC has been using it for a while. ´Whether it produces stuff of value depends a lot on the ability of the folks in the system to produce what I call “modular learning”. They need to be free enough to create, but have a clear enough vision of how their work connects to other creations in process.

I will be looking for the world’s best examples of venture building to talk about the skills sets that make it work in this blog. Stay tuned!

Believing in the Future

The other day, I had a chat with a friend. He was depressed. The world seemed to be out of control. Especially frustrating was the idea that climate change is out of control – that humanity was running out of time to deal with this problem.

BTW, I personally agree that climate change is an urgent issue. Not so much because of what we don’t know. We actually understand pretty well how to solve the problem. But our institutional arrangements are not geared to producing the types of changes that would make this happen.

But I am not depressed about it. I am an optimist and I believe that it is important to be that way. Using a sports analogy, one plays the game until it is over. The possibility of losing or even the probability of losing does not mean you play less hard.

Consider this. We need strategy when outcomes are uncertain. When outcomes are uncertain, we may lose. So if you want to have a strategic dimension in your life, you must cope with the fear of losing. The fear of failure. See it and categorize it and move on to play the game.

There is no other strategic option.

Strategy as Listening

I just came from a meeting that went very well. It went very well because I didn’t have to say anything. The other people at the meeting were already prepared to go ahead and do what needed to be done next. They agreed to the scope of work as well as the time schedule.

So you might ask, why was I there? Because I brought them together. To get a better understanding of this, you might check out Tim Sanders talking about Elmer Letterman. Elmer had a pretty cool strategy for selling insurance. Enjoy!

Sometimes You Need to Turn the Motor Off

A thought occurred to me while I was driving my car today. That is always dangerous! But I thought I would write it out quickly here and follow up later.

Here it is. People who have elevated strategic sense tend to shut off their minds quite a lot. They feel at liberty to rest and have an intuitive sense when it is ok to do so.

This is a slightly different idea of focusing. Focus is also closing off the mind to certain thoughts. But it does not invite rest.

So, how well do you modulate between focus and rest?

Stating Forcefully Who You Are!

Part of the strategic learning process is story building. Great lives are great stories, created by the people who lived them. And then they are told by many others because the story resonates.  A basic point — stories won’t resonate with others if they do not resonate within yourself.

So how do we build stories that resonate with ourselves? Part of the challenge is taking a closer look at what we mean when we say “ourselves”. We are a lot of things put together. And not all of those things resonate. Some are just dross. Stuff that we would like to keep private. Some are just details. Boring stuff. So what is left over?  Good question. What is actually there beyond the dross and the detail?

Consider this opening line from a book by famous trial lawyer Gerry Spense. The book is called “With Justice for None“. BTW, that is a title that resonates.

I feel like a farmer who has spent all of his life on forty rocky ares and one day thinks he’s qualified to tell you something about the state of agriculture in America.

The narrative theme is — a man worked hard all his life at something that may not have produced much has something to say.  You may not agree with what that man is going say, but you have to respect where he coming from. His identity resonates.

Does yours? If you cannot say “yes” with confidence, don’t despair. Too few among us can honestly say “yes”. And this is something we can work on. Indeed, we should work on it if we want to develop a strategic sense.

Getting Out of the Way of Success

We have been taking a walk through the strategy model to get a feel for how it works. The first posts were about cognition. You can think of these as tools to create mental space for ideas to flow. But it is just a first step.

When it comes to developing strategic ideas about the self, we bump into another problem. It is a cultural problem. In other words, we are not hindered here by the limits of our humanity. But we construct identities — our perceptions of who we are — based on learning from childhood.

How do we do it? We see ourselves as a person – a completed thing. I am! I exist! And as a thing in existence, I can claim rights and entitlements and property and so on. So far, no problem. But there is a catch. This thing that is me resists change. It is a core, unchanging conception.

No doubt we must believe this. But what is inside of that core? What is it that remains unchanged, no matter what happens outside of me? This is where things get a bit tricky. If we are not careful, we will pull things into the core that we like but that are not essential. And the more we pull in, the less we are capable of changing. The more we are stuck playing “defense” in life, protecting the core against outside influences.

For this reason, part of strategic thinking is to better prioritize what goes into our sense of self. And as we do that, we can gamify the self – seeing the process of becoming something as satisfying as the process of defending something. We can learn to get out of the way of success.

Process and Value Added

I hope you enjoy the post below. It evolved from some thinking about upgrading routines. That thinking led me to re-visit thinking routines and the value that can come from them. Enjoy!

The core idea of this web platform  is that strategic thinking can be improved through mastery of process. In other words, great strategic ideas don’t just hit us like bolts of lightning. Well, they may every now and then … if we are lucky. But we generate more and better strategic ideas that build threads of continuity between what we want to achieve in the future and what we are doing in the present if we understand where these ideas come from.

A gentle reminder: Before one starts practicing any process, one has to believe in the idea of process itself.

We experience this challenge when we take up a sport, let’s say golf. If you have not played golf, but have just watched a very good golfer play, you probably have the idea that it is easy to hit the ball. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you give a try for the first time, you quickly realize that most of the game is about deconstructing and taking over the mechanics of swinging a golf club so that you actually end up hitting the ball correctly. In fact, the golf swing is a very complex process that is easily disrupted. Many give it up as too difficult. The folks who love golf tend to love and rather obsessively talk about this process. They believe in the value of practicing process to produce delight on the golf course or the practice tee. They believe in process.

It is relatively easy for us to accept that a mechanical process can govern how well we play a pre-fab, finite game like golf.  Life is different. It is not pre-fab and for most of our lives, life does not appear to be so finite.

Indeed, most of us intensely fear its end point because we resist the idea that life is finite. How could “I” ever die? And perhaps we often seek escape in distractions in order to reinforce the illusion that we live in a timeless state. We enjoy the illusion that just “being” is an ultimate in itself.

For these reasons, it is more challenging to adopt a belief that generating a great life is the product of process – not some innate personal greatness. In fact, it appears that mental health requires at least some belief that we are unique and special. So we might say, that we can become even more so (live up to our potential) by adopting great processes. So we can be inherently great, but nothing like we could be if we adhere to great process.

From a strategic point of view, the idea that great results appear out of nowhere is nonsense on stilts. There is a future and we have the opportunity to shape it, if we are prepared to do so. Just “being” is perhaps the opposite of doing that. When we start thinking this way, we start seeing life more as a process where our actions either add or subtract value that can be realized in the future.  We get interested in challenging processes over easily gained results. We gamify the future.

A first step: Believing in process leads to using process. We move from being lost to seeing a path. A Zen story (The Ten Bulls)  illustrates this transition rather well. We start with a  feeling of being lost and exhausted. The metaphor is that we are separated from our true self (the bull or perhaps the future that we want to bring about): Here is the first image about the search

And here is the rather charming text that goes along with the image

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Comment: The bull never has been lost. What need is there to search? Only because of separation from my true nature, I fail to find him. In the confusion of the senses I lose even his tracks. Far from home, I see many crossroads, but which way is the right one I know not. Greed and fear, good and bad, entangle me.

Have you had this lost feeling? I have, and it is rather disturbing. But wait! Then we see footprints!

Here is the text, again rather charming

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

Comment: Understanding the teaching, I see the footprints of the bull. Then I learn that, just as many utensils are made from one metal, so too are myriad entities made of the fabric of self. Unless I discriminate, how will I perceive the true from the untrue? Not yet having entered the gate, nevertheless I have discerned the path.

Seeing the value of process is like seeing the path to find the bull, or true self or the future that has eluded us so far. Seeing the path is in itself a step forward.

But how do we use process to start producing results? I think it is best to start in the present and learn how to deconstruct why we do things. When we start tracking this, it can be rather alarming to find out how much of what we do is on “automatic pilot” — or to put it another way, the result of habit. Dan Kahneman calls this the result of fast thinking, which we do over 99% of the time. In fact, our brains don’t like to do slow, or analytical thinking. That is work!

There is nothing wrong with disliking slow thinking and using fast thinking. Indeed, as far as we know, we cannot change this basic aspect of how we function as humans. The trick is therefore not to do more slow thinking, but to better use slow thinking in order to adjust our auto pilots. This is a critical insight.

There is a certain amount of discipline required here. Going back to our charming bull story, this is a moment when we confront our true selves (the untamed bull or the thing we want to bring about)

And as with the prior two episodes, the text that goes along with the picture is rather charming

I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Comment: When one hears the voice, one can sense its source. As soon as the six senses merge, the gate is entered. Wherever one enters one sees the head of the bull! This unity is like salt in water, like color in dyestuff. The slightest thing is
not apart from self.

But the true self (or bull or our future self) is rather wild. It must be brought under some sort of control. If we are playing a game, this “taming” process is what we do when we practice in order to master a process. It looks like this

The text tells the story

I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Comment: He dwelt in the forest a long time, but I caught him today! Infatuation for scenery interferes with his direction. Longing for sweeter grass, he wanders away. His mind still is stubborn and unbridled. If I wish him to submit, I must raise my whip.

Well, the “whip” here is dedication to mindful practice in order to get better at process. Not just to see what we do while in auto pilot mode, but to adjust auto pilot. In the real world, we can do this by deconstructing why we do what we do. Not to be satisfied with the superficial explanations “I eat because I am hungry” but to track at the moment when we feel the ” cue” to eat something and ask, “why do I feel the cue?” Is it, in fact, due to hunger or something else?  And then ask again, if I can identify that thing that cues me, why is it a cue? One keep going on with this socratic questioning — why,, why, why until one sees how the process works.

Once we begin to understand what cues our habits, we can begin to see the value or destructive nature of those habits. But can we adjust them? Here is an odd fact — we can replace habits, but we cannot eliminate them.  Once we understand that, we can more clearly see what it is so important to focus on our daily routines. Not be become obsessive about them. But to upgrade them, one step at a time.

Going back to our zen story, we get a picture that looks like this

And the corollary text

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Comment: When one thought arises, another thought follows. When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true. Through delusion, one makes everything untrue. Delusion is not caused by objectivity; it is the result of subjectivity. Hold the nose-ring tight and do not allow even a doubt.

If find the line “When one thought arises, another thought follows …” to resonate.All of the work we do to upgrade our habits is part of a flow of thinking. As we watch that flow, we can begin to understand it and direct it.

And if the starting point is a love of process, one can start to feel the joy of adhering to process.  Practice becomes fun. Something that may look like this

And the text

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Comment: This struggle is over; gain and loss are assimilated. I sing the song of the village woodsman, and play the tunes of the children. Astride the bull, I observe the clouds above. Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.

Here the idea of being “homeward bound” is introduced. A feeling that John Wooden called a “winning attitude”. For him, it was the ultimate reward for playing a game – loving the game. And in this episode, we are introduced to the value of loving life as a process.

You might feel a bit frustrated at this point. Working with habits does not seem directly related to developing great strategic concepts. When do we start discussing where genius ideas arise from?

In fact, generating what we call genius requires mastery of mental processes in real time. And building great habits is a great place to start doing that.

Hmmm … so what about mental habits that can help build better creative thought processes?  In fact, there are certain habits in this individual niche that are worthy of focus. We can use the above model to deconstruct them

  • what circumstances “cue” us to start asking strategic questions?
  • what routines do we follow to generate strategic concepts?
  • what is the reward that we seek from strategy?

The first and third questions are highly individual. But the second one brings into play more general processes. To generate great solutions to strategic problems requires making great connections between different parts of the brain. I enjoyed this post that speculates this was the secret behind DaVinci’s great genius – he was a great interlinker.

One way of describing the most productive type of connection is between the conscious and the unconscious brain regions. The conscious part formulates questions and poses it to the more powerful unconscious part. The unconscious brain then goes through a period of incubation, and then delivers a proposed solution.

Using this model, one can ask a rather provocative question: how much time do you spend (1) asking questions, and (2) in incubation?` That may be one way to interpret the next image from our zen story. incubation happens at home – it is restful

and the text

Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Comment: All is one law, not two. We only make the bull a temporary subject. It is as the relation of rabbit and trap, of fish and net. It is as gold and dross, or the moon emerging from a cloud. One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.

The above offers an interesting view of how the right side of the brain works. It is largely unconscious, and it is not founded by forms. It is where we create in the mind. It is like home. It is the center or our capacity for incubation.

And what happens when we practice incubation? We get something that looks like transcendence

This may be seen in a mystical sense. Or it may be seen in a realization of just how huge the capacity of our unconscious mind actually is.

Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Comment: Mediocrity is gone. Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. Since I linger in neither condition, eyes cannot see me. If hundreds of birds strew my path with flowers, such praise would be meaningless.

I call this creating strategic space. And where does this lead us? To doing nothing? Well not so quick. Doing nothing  appears valuable in light of resistance to work. Why is resistance to work valuable? Most likely because we have been overwhelmed by the difficulty of work in light of the rewards we get from it.  So we dream of gaming the system to get rewards that are out of proportion to what we do.  In fact, transcendence allows us to start perceiving value. In our zen story it looks like this

The text helps again

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without —
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Comment: From the beginning, truth is clear. Poised in silence, I observe the forms of integration and disintegration. One who is not attached to “form” need not be “reformed.” The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo, and I see that which is creating and that which is destroying.

In other words, we can see value beyond the self. We can begin to ask how we would like to connect to the activities that produce that value. Things that do not change. These are the “golden nuggets” that allow us to form strategic objectives. We are in a powerful position to ask the most important and first strategic question (form Lafley and Martin) – who do I want to be in light of what others do?

I like this idea of incubation that leads us to transcendence and seeing value. For that reason, I like this video that goes through a simple model for producing incubation. Whether you try this approach or not, check out the model!

Or if you want the final “follow through” from our zen story, here it is

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Comment: Inside my gate, a thousand sages do not know me. The beauty of my garden is invisible. Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs? I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff. I visit the wineshop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.

The idea of “enlightenment” can be interpreted as seeing a strategic vision to gain and enjoy what we need from life. All else is a distraction.

So, does this offer any particular strategic solution? No. What I have tried to do here instead is to describe a process that you can practice that will increase your capacity to generate strategic ideas where solutions to problems appear more easily.


Practicing Ideation

We have all seen this situation in a movie. The heroes are trapped in what looks like certain death. They need to come up with an escape play quickly … and somehow they do. After all, that’s why they are heroes, right?

But what about in real life? Franklin famously pointed out that it is amazing how the sight of a noose sharpens the mind. And in my experience, this exactly describes why some of us need deadlines in order to produce work of value. The deadline is the proverbial “noose”.

But can we get better at coming up with ideas without that kind of pressure? Some think that the answer is “yes”.  They argue that if you practice coming up with ideas each day, you will get better at ideation. I think this is partially true and it is a pretty interesting subject.

Every professional writer gives the following advice: if you want to be a writer, write every day. Don’t think that you can do this without the practice. Nearly all of what you produce will be poor quality. That is part of the process of getting better at your craft. And at least part of that “getting better” is in coming up with ideas.

At the same time, coming up with ideas is not that big a deal. We all come up with a lot of lousy ideas. The more important work is to look at them and assess their relative value. That is why Hemingway suggested that one can write while drunk, but always be sober when you edit. Writing is in fact re-writing.

This applies more generally in strategic thinking. Great strategy does not arise from just being clever. It arises from difficult challenges that are faced head on.

So go ahead and ideate. But keep in mind that this is just a first step towards learning.

Asking the Right Questions

This is a second post where I summarize the key elements of my strategic thinking model.

We started by taking a quick look at the difference between strategic and non-strategic thinking. And we noted that even if you wants to be strategically minded, you can get stuck if you perceive the risks of failure as too high.

But perceived risks are not necessarily real risks. The problem is that as a species, humans are just not very good at future thinking. We evolved more as a present thinking creature. It is only in modern times where we have become future oriented (seen in our obsession with “progress”).

With our inherent limitations, to be successful in a world that is future oriented, we need to master certain intellectual tools that enable us to better predict the outcomes of the games we play. These tools enable us to better use our mental resources to see more clearly things in time..And using them boils down to learning to ask the right questions.

What we need to know in any given situation is what is the value of the experience in light of where we need to go in the future. In other words, learning how to interpret experiences rather than just take them in. Strategy emerges from these interpretations. It supports the story that we weave around who we want to be in light of what is going on around us.

In this context, the main risk is not having a vision at all — clinging to the present as if the present will last forever. Once we let go of that, we can more clearly see the barriers to moving on and the risks that we cannot surmount these barriers.  So can strategy help us overcome these barriers? Of course! Stay tuned!

Strategic First Steps

To start off 2015, I thought I would offer a short series to help folks get oriented to strategic thinking and learning. This is not a full blown course, but think of it as an “amuse bouche” – a series of bite sized morsels that stimulate the appetite.

So where to start? I think the best starting point is to take a peek at non-strategic thinking. To do that, allow me to ask you a question. “How certain are you of your future?”

Most of us would like to be certain that we will find success. All things being equal, finding success without serious effort trumps taking a more risky path that could lead to disaster.

Is this appropriate? It may be. But one might wonder if it should be the default strategic approach to life. It is easy to forget that when we think this way we confirm an aversion to risk. In other words, getting the reward for winning is preferable to playing the game. Are risks so dangerous that we should automatically reject them? Do we even see risks as they are versus how we are taught to see them?

These are provocative questions. And as you consider them, you might also consider this. Studies show that people who have not directly experienced risks tend to exaggerate them.

In my experience, folks who make strategic blunders in life often fear risk more than they see possible gain. This is compounded by an exaggerated fear of risks that naturally grows when we think defensively. And this is a model of the non-strategic thinker.

Let’s stop there. After all, this is just an amuse bouche! But you might wonder, can one get better at seeing risks and rewards? That is next!