Strategy, tactics and diversity

I’ve started off 2015 thinking about the interplay of strategy, tactics and diversity in new business efforts. This quotation from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been stuck in my head:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Breaking this passage down, I’ll define tactics here as “doing things right” (management) and strategy as “doing the right things” (leadership).

In my experience new companies prioritize questions of strategy (what will we do?) and not tactical execution (how will we do it well?).  I think the focus on strategy over execution is a mistake and I agree with Mike Roach’s sentiment:

Strategy without execution is hallucination.

In my experience:

  • Planning to do things is easy
  • Doing things well is difficult
  • Doing new things well is more difficult
  • Groups of people doing new things well is even more difficult
  • New groups of people doing new things well is almost impossible

So the question remains: How does a new team (a startup) doing something new (an innovation) learn to execute well?  Here are a few informal principles I’ve identified:

1. Plan to learn from failure

We all make mistakes when trying something new, we should keep in mind that failure can be an invaluable instructor.  The privilege to make mistakes, learn and improve should inform (not detract from) timelines, product schedules and project leadership.

This means giving people the opportunity to fail at achieving a goal and allowing them to try again (but differently!). I’ve come to prefer this approach of “fail, learn and re-try” over one of the popular alternatives: hire ambitious recent MBA from established company internship and/or well-branded school with a specialization in X.

2. Encourage critical team reviews

I’ve witnessed (and delivered) some truly terrible investment pitches, product launches and marketing efforts.  Usually the story goes something like this:

  1. A person or team ignores or does not engage with diverse critical feedback
  2. Wider examination reveals an important flaw and a pitch / product / company fails

When we ignore critical examination by others it becomes more likely that what we don’t know, in fact, will hurt us.  Giving priority to early, constructive and critical reviews from different people with different skills and viewpoints helps us to:

  • Identify risks early (when we are best able to change things)
  • Reduce overconfidence and over-planning
  • Better prepare to deal with dissenting viewpoints
  • Distinguish strategic errors from tactical problems when they do occur (“was our product wrong for the market or did we market it wrong?”)

We don’t know what we don’t know but we can ask. So how do we ensure that we’re asking the right people?  This brings me to the third principle:

3.  Encourage significant diversity

A significant number of business studies have concluded that groups that look more alike, act more alike, and think more alike are less likely to succeed in innovative contexts.  Why?  In the words of Scientific American editor Fred Guterl (summarizing the research findings of Katherine W. Phillips, Vice Dean of Columbia Business School):

When we have to work with people who are not like ourselves, we tend to prepare more thoroughly and work harder to marshal our arguments, and we do better work as a result.

Significant diversity prevents the assumption that team members, investors or customers will perceive things the same way you do.  It is important to remember:

  • When we make assumptions, we guess
  • When we examine our ideas, products, and methods, we still guess but we make better, more educated guesses

In this way, diversity* better prepares “new people doing new things” for the unorthodox, always-changing and impermanent world, which, in our corner, is the business market.

Final thoughts

So “how does a team without much experience in a given area learn to execute well?” My short answer:

  • By planning to learn from failure
  • By encouraging critical team reviews
  • By encouraging significant diversity

* I define diversity broadly here as a condition in which any person will not assume that another person shares their perspective.  

The painting in the header of this post is by the artist Au Ho-Nien. His work acknowledges arts from many periods of historic China including the ink wash styles of the Song Dynasty. Sun Tzu has been required reading for military strategists since at least the Song, so a match with the topic of this article felt appropriate. The subject of the painting reminds me a popular idiom about birds which isn’t entirely true.