A Negotiated Culture

Culture is a bit, big word. It encompasses everything that affects our belief structure.  We might even say that culture is the link we have to community. It is the conversation that either inspires us to closer connection or  pushes us away.

In this sense, it is a negotiation between me as an individual, and the group as community. We negotiated what standards are consistent with the culture we share. And if that negotiation is engaging, culture can be highly creative. If not, it can be destructive.

So how can we enhance culture to bring out its more creative possibilities? Good question.. As far as I understand this challenge, we need to start with an assumption. That assumption is that we have a vision about how to add value. If we have no vision, we are indifferent to what we do. Any road is fine if we don’t know where we are going.

Ok. Let’s assume that we have this vision. Taking Bruno Aziz’s model, we are concerned with 3 aspects of the negotiation

  • is your vision clear?  Clarity is essential to enable focus (setting aside those things that we are not working on)
  • Can you communicate it? Communication is not just about talk, It is also about roles and decision making
  • Do you act in a manner that is consistent with it?  We live  with our decisions, becoming the people we are talking about. Or we are wasting our time.

Bruno then, is obsessed with clarity, communication and consistency. I would add one more value. All negotiations are about forming a story line. That story is only coherent if it is tracked over time. So that we do not forget what has been done and what has been learned by the collaboration.

This last element — the tracking element — is not well defined in modern life. We do, do do, but we do not remember, remember, remember. As a result, we do not learn, learn, learn.


More on Commitment and Consistency

I spent the summer thinking about this concept. What is the value of commitment? It obviously has potential value, bit precisely, what is the value?

BTW, when I say it has potential value, I do not just refer to getting something done. I mean value to the self.

Keep in mind that commitment does not always add value. When we commit to a process that doesn’t work, we can get in trouble. And a majority of starter uppers do just that.  This type of failure can create a “loser complex”.

And keep in mind that we are talking about various types of commitments. Not just the big ones, like getting married or having kids or performing at work. We make commitments every day about all sorts of stuff. And often we fail to keep them. Like losing ten pounds by summer. Ooops! What went wrong?

This got me thinking about an aspect of commitment that I had not considered to be that important. I had thought of commitment as an end point. A decision that ends freedom to choose. But with each commitment, we also open the door to next steps. Commitment can be seen as starting point rather than end point

I was reminded of my younger days.As a lad,  I rebelled from commitment. The reason was staring me in the face. I did not like what my dear old dad’s commitment to his career had tone to his personality. He was too grumpy. Too distant from people. Too driven. I didn’t want to live that way. Bad end point. So I rebelled.

I thought of this as freedom from commitment. And because of that,  I didn’t, I didn’t take my rebellion too seriously. I allowed it to turn into drifting.  And as a drifter,  I couldn’t figure out how to take a next step.  I became paralyzed by my own introspection.

At a certain point, i got fed up with it and committed to go to law school. That got me started on a new chapter of my life and a new learning cycle.

Commitment as the start of learning. That may be a more precise way of describing the value of that type of decision for the self. Not as an end point, but as a starting point that empowers us to take next steps.

There is an added bonus to this. Our minds instinctively form beliefs about what is going on around us. Each of these beliefs  has its own logic for taking additional steps. That is why commitment has a domino effect. We tend to act in  a manner that is consistent with our beliefs — even unconsciously. But steadily.

So as you go through your day, you might ask yourself more frequently, what am I committed to here? What commitments are pushing me forward? If you can’t answer, it is time for a re-set.

Can We Build Belief in a Strategic Concept?

I  have argued that the strongest starting point for strategic thinking is to build on beliefs shared by others. Folks will act upon their beliefs and hold onto them, making beliefs more predictive than other types of presumptions.

That is fine if these the beliefs we are working from are obvious. Going back to Steve Jobs, the belief in the value of being “cool” was obvious in US culture. It dated back to the 1950’s and perhaps even before.Jobs simply applied that to a new field – desktop and then mobile computing.  His innovation was to make that link, Building on the belief in cool, he got people excited about buying cool Apple products.

But what if there is no obvious belief that will create a domino effect? Sutton and Rao discus this challenge in their book “Scaling Up Excellence”. They argue that building commitment to beliefs in organizations is a challenge. It can be done, but there are invisible barriers, and overcoming these barriers requires a significant investment in time and human capital. We only want to make that investment for critical agenda items.

One of the keys to making this work is instilling a belief in ultimate success. Belief in success is a powerful motivator to take on commitments. Conversely, a sense of impending failure will weaken the resolve of followers as much as the barriers themselves.

So what is success? It has many shapes and forms. But one of the main characteristics is that it proclaims itself as successful. It is not bashful.

Tony Robbins is a master at making this work. Listen to any of his marketing materials. Most of the time he is talking about how successful he and his friends are. He does this for a reason — To build confidence in the message he wants to deliver. In fact, that message is less important than the belief that he imparts that “you can do it”.  Why can you do it? Because I say so. And you have reason to believe him.

The message levitates itself.

When Do We Frame a question?

We are at work here thinking through the starting point for strategy.  Why bother? Because if we get the starting point right, our analysis has a much higher chance of getting us somewhere. Get the starting point wrong, and we may develop great answers to the wrong question.

Our work so far has taken us to the challenge of making framework decisions. These are decisions that we need to base further activity upon. We do not want to get these wrong.

As an aside, we might think, for example, that “civilization” is a process of building on shared framework decisions.

What does a solid framework look like?

I would suggest that the best frameworks are predictive. In other words, they allow us to test their value based upon observations of future events. Scientific method is a tool that we use to make framework decisions about the nature of reality. If gravity is a force that exerts an attractive force on a mass, then if I  hump out of an airplane, I should fall to the ground. Simple enough.

But things get a bit weird when we seek to predict how humans will act. As a species, we are capable of creating our own interpretations of what is important. We are free to do so. And as a result, foundation decisions about people will always be less predictive than we might like. Perhaps this is why the advance of civilization has been so jerky – up and down.

And perhaps this is why humans, by and large, are such terrible decision makers. We are reluctant to set aside our beliefs in reality, even when we see evidence that they are wrong.  We suffer from cognitive biases.

If we wish to build strategic decision making capacity, it may not be such a bad idea to accept this as a fundamental aspect of being human. We are prone to interpret reality in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. We must live with our cognitive biases.

If so, foundation decisions that rely upon personal belief are the most suspect. Are there other types that have a stronger foundation?`Of course. If all humans are subject to the same  cognitive biases, framework decisions based upon what others believe to be true are more likely to predict how they will act. Why? Because those people will hold onto those beliefs no matter what.

So strategic framework decisions focus on identifying and using shared beliefs with in groups. If you can identify a belief, you can make a framework decision about how that belief will affect what people will do over time.

Getting started with a strategic question, then, is less about me than about seeing the beliefs that drive other people to act.

Thinking about Emotional Intensity and Decision

We are moving along in our thread about strategic starting points. The overall question is how can we get better at finding them. Finding the answer, we discover, takes us on a path into our psychology.

At this stage, we are sorting out two different types of strategic commitments. Do we need to “break the mold” or “use the mold”. Both decisions will have a domino effect, so we want to get it right.  in choosing how to add value over time.

Jeff Bezos offers some insight to help us out. Jeff notes that there are two type of strategic decisions. The first type is the “core” or “framework” decision. This is the belief that you are confident enough in that you feel compelled to act on it. In Jeff Bezos’ world, deciding that people will always want lower prices i creates a framework for how he will structure all sorts of future decisions.

The second type of decision is when we experiment to improve how we can achieve  our framework goal. So, we might think that tougher negotiations with suppliers might give us lower base costs and allow us to sell at lower prices. We might then start experimenting with those negotiations.

We expect experiments to fail. That is ok. We can learn from it. it is a much bigger strategic problem if we start seeing evidence that our framework decision has no basis in reality. When going forward, we start getting surprised by data.

We can think of a framework decision as the choice that dictates what molds we will use. and what molds we might break. Again, using Jeff’s example, if people always want lower prices, Jeff saw an opportunity to deliver that using e commerce. He broke the mold of how retail traditionally operated in bricks and mortar stores. And he committed to using a new mold – the e commerce platform.

The key point here is that molds have no inherent value unless they fit into a usable framework that helps us predict what will happen over time. Not that it will be “correct”, but that it will be “predictive”. Committing to an e commerce platform just for the hell of  it is not a great strategic starting point.

So we have reached the stage where we need to see more clearly what framework decisions look like. That is next.

Added Value and Domino Effects

This is the fourth post in this thread about finding the starting point for strategic thinking. If we find the starting point, we have a good shot at developing more and better strategic ideas.

We know by now that strategic thinking starts with a question about how to add value over time. It is a type of “ex ante” versus “ex post” thinking.

So how do we manage this “ex ante” thought process? First, a cautionary note. We know that humans are terrible at coping with the future. We do not have good instincts for ex ante thinking. For example, we  know that we will get old. Everyone does. And we know that when we get old, we will not be able to work as we did when we are young. We will need some sort of savings to see us through that period. We can only save to prepare for this when we are making income. Moreover, due to interest compounding, the earlier we start saving the more savings we will end up with. And yet we tend not to svae. We tend to over spend. We know what we are doing is stupid on an intellectual level and yet we do it anyway.  I rest my case. Humans suck at future thinking.

We can do better if we can more easily visualize the future. But here is the thing. We can’t. We cannot see what tomorrow will bring because it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, if you think about it, we are walking backwards through life. We see only what is behind us (in the past) and interpret what we have seen to build expectations about the future. Even our perceptions of the present are in fact interpretations based on the past.

The starting point for understanding strategic questioning is simply  to accept this limitation.  Accept it as the best possible model of reality. Once we accept it, we can start to reflect more systematically about how to improve our modeling. These improvements include making better choices as well as being more flexible in changing direction as the results of our choices become apparent over time.

Here is a good starting point to achieve this. Bob Cialdini wrote a long time ago in his very important book “Influence” that we tend to act in patterns based on commitment and consistency. If we commit to a thing, we tend to act in a manner that is consistent with that commitment — even without thinking about it.

An example — if you commit to making your bed every day, after a while you may notice that you are not doing the dishes. If you commit to doing the dishes as well, you may notice that the vacuum cleaner is gathering dust. And onward. Pretty soon your house will be very clean and tidy. Conversely, if you do not make the bed, you are less likely to notice these things. This is the so called “domino effect”.

This informs us about what types of questions have more strategic value than others. We are looking to start the best possible domino effects.  Some  questions are more likely than others to  trigger positive domino effects. to take us where we want to go.

Keep in mind that as we look for these, we are making a value judgment about the future. We are either deciding that we want to change something about the present, or we are deciding that we want to reinforce something that is already there.  We are either “breaking the mold” or “using the mold”-.

The romantic tradition gives us a certain fascination for breaking the mold. We have the notion that this is what creativity is all about. Doing something new seems to be better in itself simply because we did it. That is at the core of romantic thinking. So we have that quaint romantic idea of the “rebel without a cause”. One rebels because one is supposed to rebel.

If you think of this in terms of domino effects, you begin to see that the rebel without a cause will find and commit to all sorts of activities that are consistent with rebelling even if they are meaningless in themselves.  So  some of us will only buy jeans that are already torn at the knee.  Tattoos? Of course! Drinking? Hell yes! And so on.

Let’s take this a step further. Quite a lot of things called “innovation” are in fact just attempts to break molds for no particular reason. To build something new, just because we can. The Segway is a classic example. It is a transportation tool that has had no clear function. So too was the original PC-. Watson was right. There was very little use for it in the home. But Steve Jobs persuaded us that it was cool.  We committed to being cool, and so we bought lots and lots of Apples.

Strategically,  one can see that this can produce effects, but it is also high risk stuff. Change for the sake of change, even for the sake of being cool, may not lead to much value added. It may, but it doesn’t necessarily do so.

So what about using the mold?  If our initial commitment already has value and produces a domino effect, we are likely to be pleasantly surprised at where we end up. We may achieve the original goal as well as many other things that are connected to it.

The key is that the mold has to fall into the category of things we do not want to change.  So, for example, Jeff Bezos famously said that Amazon is not interested in what is changing. Amazon is intensely interested in what will NOT change over time. And Amazon believes that people will always want (1) lower prices, (2) greater selection, and (3) faster delivery. And Amazon relentless innovates to give the customer those three things, changing anything and everything that takes them a step down one of those paths. Doing so caused it to invest in enormous computer storage capacity. And that led to an amazingly profitable AWS business. Wow!

but once again, a commitment to using a mold does not guarantee that the mold will offer long term value. We can just as easily get stuck in meaningless routines because of a commitment to a value that offers little opportunity to grow. So Nokia committed to offering cheaper and better mobile phones. No one was better at this. And the routines that Nokia created to take this further blinded the company to the value of the smart phone. They simply couldn’t believe that breaking the mold the way Jobs did with the IPhone would add more value. In that case, it did.

My point here is not to advocate for breaking or using molds as the answer to all strategic problems. It is instead to sharpen our focus on the nature of the strategic choices at hand. Because of the domino effect, any single choice will have multiple effects over time.

So far so good. But how do we direct our focus so that we are more likely to know which starting points will take us farther? How do we know when to break the mold or use the mold? That is next.

Moral Imperative and Value Added

This is the third post in a thread on finding a starting point for strategic thinking. So far we have seen how this is an iterative process (not one and done), and that we start with a question how will we add value.

We have inherited a dangerous idea. That idea is that added value is the same as moral imperative. One example of this is the protestant work ethic. Hard work is rewarded.

Morality is, of course, of primary importance in structuring our social relationships. If we are amoral or immoral, we lose trust. One has strong incentive to at least appear to have some moral basis for one’s activities. Lack of moral foundation also affects the self. When we violate a code of conduct, we cannot help but lose self worth. We might find ways to compensate or re-gain it back, but that does not negate the initial effect.

At the same time, morality does not necessarily add value over time. For example, I would argue that there was nothing morally superior about using oil instead of coal as a source of energy. Nor would I argue that driving cars is morally superior to riding horses. Nor would I argue that using computers is morally superior to using pen and pencil. While none of these switches improved our moral character, they all have added value to society.

So let’s think for a second, why is morality not the best indicator of how to add value in human relations?

The answer is simple. Morality is about ex post analysis. We cannot say an act is immoral  without a prior moral standard-. If after the standard is set, and one violates it. the conclusion is clear. But I should not punish myself for violating a standard that did not exist at the time I acted.Nor should society. And Indeed, this is a classic legal principle.

Value added, however, is not about ex post thinking at all. To the contrary, it is about how we can be made better in the future regardless of past standards.  It is an “ex ante” process. So we think a Ferrari is highly valuable, but it is less so if we are in the desert  with it and without fuel or water. A painting may be priced at an absurdly high figure, but it loses value if it cannot be re-sold. A degree in law or medicine is valuable to the extent that we use it.

Here is the weird thing. We are routinely taught that we can solve the ex ante problem of adding value in life using ex post standards. Ooops! It doesn’t work that way. Judging our activities based on ex post standards may help us become better people, but not necessarily add value.

So how do we start thinking about ex ante value creation? good quesiotn. That is next.


Going into Starting points and Value added

This is a second post about the core of strategic thinking: how to get oriented.

In my first post, I threw out the idea that every conscious moment in life is a starting point. They all are, however, only if we see them that way. It is a choice.

let’s say that we choose to see them that way. What do we see?

You might be surprised to find out that historically, this has been largely determined on a cultural level. Being part of society means that we share common beliefs about where we start our stories.

This helps us understand the power that organized religion has had.  Organized religion is a fantastic tool to synchronize the starting points of groups of people. So, for example, if the purpose of life is to do God’s bidding, then every moment is a starting point to meet that challenge. Nothing more and nothing else.

We have moved somewhat beyond this idea after the enlightenment. We do not reject God, but we do not believe that God demands that each and everything we do is nothing more than following orders. We believe that we have the power and right to initiate our own creative choices about where we focus and what we do. From this vantage point, it is not surprising that the enlightenment was immediately followed by the romantic rebellion. Romanticism is the emotional assertion of the freedom that the enlightenment achieved. Romanticism demands recognition of the individual’s power of creation.

But romanticism itself is a bit long in the tooth these days. We no longer need to keep fighting the same battle over whether we can create. We can and we do create. Indeed, we obsess over how creative we are. We bow down at the altar of “innovation”. The next step is to ask what value do we create?

In other words, the best starting points for strategic thinkers are about value added. Are we on a path to add value or not?

Good question. Good starting point. But what is “value”?`You might be surprised to find out that the concept is subtle. That is next.

A key question: What is Your Starting Point?

If you think about a game like basketball or tennis, you get an intuitive sense of the importance of the starting point. Start off strong and the rest of the game is more manageable.

In life, parents stress this too. We tell our kids to get a strong foundation in education to start off well.

That advice is good. But it also misses the point. our chronological life is not the same as our intellectual and emotional life. Chronologically, we start off as kids. Intellectually and emotionally, we start off all the time.

In fact, you might argue with some conviction that life is not a single game at all. It is a series of smaller and shorter games. And each of those smaller and shorter games has a starting point.

This is what Musaashi was talking about when he said that in each second we have an opportunity to be the person we want to be. Each second is a starting point.

And so it brings up the question, what is a “good” starting point from an intellectual and emotional point of view. Even better, what would an “optimal” starting point look like? I will be writing about that in the next days.

Stay tuned!