Strategy and "Collapse"

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Driving home from the weekend at Marlboro College, I started reflecting on the experience. Unlike texting while driving, I can keep my attention on the road while thinking. The last class I attended was a wrap-up of a course on Strategy Synthesis with an emphasis on integrating sustainability. The time was spent debriefing and discussing the experience of the three student projects. One of the questions that ran through all three was, essentially, what is strategic?

Looking at standard business school strategy courses is not terribly helpful in the sustainability context. Most interestingly, the first assignment in this course was to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Strategy is his framework for winning or, in a less aggressive statement, managing conflict. So is it in business. The goal of a strategy is to capture ground within some competitive sector, most often measured by market share or share price. Sustainability, social responsibility, or environment have been placed into that strategy largely as rear guard actions.

It is increasingly clear in this age of climate change, hyper-consumerism, disappearing jobs, increasing wealth accumulation, and vast global hunger and poverty that there are other wars being waged. The war metaphor has been widely used to raise concerns about great unsatisfied areas of social concern. Business is the largest global institution in financial terms and dominant player in the market now chosen by global policies as the arena where most of these other wars are to be fought. If that is the case, then the strategic implications are monumental. Should and can business fight all these wars at the same time? Even great governments like ours with a much larger system of accountability and focused resources struggles to fight on all the fronts it faces. The biggest question of the day as seen in the media is whether the US can fight real wars, provide health care, and create jobs all at the same time. Each requires a different strategy.

Jared Diamond, an expert in understanding Collapse, the title of his last book, now thinks that business can take on the sustainability war. The headline in a recent column in the NYTimes blares, “Will Big Business Save the Earth?” Diamond answers positively.

There is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.

But today I have more nuanced feelings. Over the years I’ve joined the boards of two environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, serving alongside many business executives.

I think he misses the point. He has been impressed personally by the efforts and intentions of executives of big companies to act more responsively and responsibly to environmental problems. He notes

On each of these [environmental] issues, American businesses are going to play as much or more of a role in our progress as the government. And this isn’t a bad thing, as corporations know they have a lot to gain by establishing environmentally friendly business practices.

But that is not enough by far. Surprisingly for a student of complexity and of the systems nature of “big” problems like the collapse of earlier societal regimes, he ignores the fact that environment is only one of several interlocking pieces in the web that is creating the threat to our present world regime. Companies, governments, families, and individuals historically have been notoriously ineffective when called on to fight simultaneous wars. I am not sure that any existent institution is equipped to lead the battle against unsustainability, but certainly business is not the right one.

In Diamond’s article, Wal-Mart is named along with CocaCola and Chevron as exemplars of this new business warrior. If you think I am overstating my skepticism, just imagine encountering any of these scenes. When you walk into a Wal-Mart, you are always met by a greeter, there to direct you to the aisles with the goods you are looking for. Wal-Mart will only have entered the war against unsustainability when that greeter asks instead, “Is your purchase today necessary?” Or when the little TV screen that now adorns most gasoline pumps suggests that you take the bus or ride your bike instead of filling up with Chevron regular. Or, finally, when the label on one of Coke’s many brands of bottled waters suggests that tap water has the same rehydration power. If you can convince me that any of these are possible, given the dominance of the central strategy of businesses, then I will change my tune and adopt a different strategy for the war others and I are waging for sustainability.

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Ryan Fisher said:

Hi John,

Nice take. I shared a similar situation a few years ago working as a corporate strategist. This was our profession and many highly educated and experienced strategists batted around the word in conversation, mostly as a descriptor to their respective agendas. I found myself increasingly questioning what they meant by the word. Later, I took a job as a strategist at an operation company in the same corporation, and was asked to review and suggest improvements to our IP policy to make it more strategic. With this challenge I set about finding what our strategy was and then the inevitable question, "what is strategy?"

My research into what defines strategy was enlightening in that there really wasn't much said out there on the nature or definition of strategy, yet a whole lot on the specifics of implementing a particular strategy. Something you apparently observed.

In the end I came to two conclusions: 1) strategy implies A)an entity and B) and environment that the entity resides in. 2) Strategy and Tactics are different things, but often confused with each other.

I finally left my strategy job when I realized, as one other strategist once confided in me, that "most companies don't have a strategy, and those that do, don't usually have a good one." A bit cynical I know, but consider that the "strategy" of the company I worked for was to "operate with excellence". This "strategy" implies that the entity will fail if it is not tactically competent. I could see no discernible direction for that entity to engage its environment and select appropriate tactics in a conscious choice for engagement. Clearly, no one in charge had a clue what strategy is and therefore no recourse to effectively implement one.

What the management did understand was that they needed to preserve and try to grow the entity through profit. They knew from experience that certain tactics would result in this happening more often than not. Sometimes they made a half hearted attempt to metric their tactics to get a more informed perception of how they were performing. When this happened the result was a need for understanding the environmental circumstances and the endeavor would grind to a quick unfullfilling hault as nuance robbed them of clear conclusions. In addition, they would routinely look at their environment through this or that business paradigm, mostly SWOT, and this was mostly an exercise in powerpoint with no real insight provided. In the end, we stuck to what appearantly worked in the past. We were essentially "strategically blind". The only thing that will drive corporations to sustainability is profit. We need to recognize the real value of business activity. When a business gets natural resource concessions, or isnt charged for its effects on the environment it doesn't act in accordance with the sustainability of the greater good it acts in accordance with its profit sustainability. I would expect nothing more or less from business.