May 12

Volatile, Uncertain, Ambiguous and Complex

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO has some strong words:

“Strategy is dead. Who really knows that is going to happen anymore in this super VUCA world? The more time and money you spend devising strategies the more time you are giving you rivals to start eating your lunch.

“Management is dead. To win today you need a culture and an environment where the unreasonable power of creativity thrives. Ideas are today’s currency not strategy. Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a vision statement’ did he? He had a dream. You have to make sure you have dreams and your brand also needs a dream.” [...]

“The big idea is dead. There are no more big ideas. Creative leaders should go for getting lots and lots of small ideas out there. Stop beating yourself up searching for the one big idea. Get lots of ideas out there and then let the people you interact with feed those ideas and they will make it big.”

I read the article, and on one hand, was nodding my head saying “Yes, Yes, YES!” all the way through. I was inspired by it. But on second pass, I think the situation is a little more nuanced, and the details of the article started to feel misguided.

Strategy is not dead. But huge well-thought-through strategy may be dead. I think a little strategy can go a long way – like directional guidance. Know who you are, where you are, and have an idea where you want to go. That sort of strategy makes a lot of sense to me.

But he’s right that we live in volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex world. This doesn’t mean that big ideas are dead, or that management is dead. In means that when you optimize your projects, perfect is no longer your first priority. Speed is your first priority. Big ideas happen not on their own, but as a collection of dozens and dozens of small successful ideas.

And please stop worshiping the Almighty Idea. Ideas are great. And you need good ideas. And a good idea can Make A Difference. But an idea, devoid of context, is a dangerous thing. I have 100 good ideas every day. But they aren’t really any good until something happens with them. And if it takes a million bucks to make it happen … is it still a good idea? Execution is everything, and as pundit Gruber notes about concept videos (i.e., “good” ideas): “The designs in these concept videos are free from real-world constraints — technical, logical, fiscal. Dealing with constraints is what real design is all about.”

So let’s take a second try at the inspiring misguided article. The way I’d characterize our world:

Using outdated management principals, it is now (more than ever) too easy to over-strategize. The world is changing fast, and it is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex. Your best strategy to succeed in this environment is to hire creative leaders and creative team, and tune your culture for speed and responsiveness. Deliver a product every 2 weeks. See if the market thought it was any good. Take the feedback. Adjust. Repeat.

Remember: The rate of change is accelerating exponentially, not linearly. It’s hard to conceptualize that, but think of it this way: the tools you need to compete in next year’s environment have not even been invented yet.