Strategy, tactics, operations and emotion

This one’s been brewing for a while, but the final trigger to get it down in writing was a tweet from yesterday evening:

RT @vernaallee: RT @timkastelle: Good post & important point by @jorgebarba – It matters how you play the game. Not just being first

Will recommend Jorge’s post – it makes some very good points about the importance of getting the business-model right. Yet the part that really caught my eye was this, right at the beginning:

A few weeks ago Techcrunch published an article about a startup that got seed money from a well known group of VC’s. And because this startup is working on a similar concept that my team and I are developing, it got my attention. I immediately sent it to my crew. Their reaction was interesting. Basically they thought that that was it for us. That we got beat to the punch. That we had spent a good amount of our time working on this and that now we got beat.

Ummmm… No.

What’s interesting here is Jorge’s attitude to the roller-coaster of emotion in business and elsewhere. His ‘crew’ seem to have gotten lost here in the roller-coaster, wildly down about an apparent ‘defeat’, as much as they would no doubt be wildly ‘up’ about some apparent ‘success’. But Jorge here seems to take it all in his stride: he keeps his focus on entrepreneurship as a whole, rather than any individual events.

In a sense we could split this into three distinct layers of emotion here: strategic, tactical and operational. For quite some while now I’ve been using a variant of the Five Elements model to describe that split, in a somewhat different way, in relation to the feel, think and do of the enterprise:

But it’s actually recursive, of course: that simple mapping above is useful, but there’s action, thought and emotion in all of those distinct domains, each with their own unique emphasis. So if, for now, we keep the attention on just the nature of emotion in each of those domains, something interesting starts to emerge from that mapping.

Emotion in the ‘Operations’ space tends to get caught up in the panic of ‘the NOW!’. (For one well-known example, go see the classic restaurant-kitchen on a busy Saturday night… 🙂 ) We have systems and work-instructions and pre-planned processes and the like to try to stave off that panic: but as soon as we hit anything that doesn’t fit the structure’s assumption, panic is what will often ensue. And historically speaking, ‘panic’ is the correct word here: it’s the emotion that arises when we meet up with Pan, the place or space where everything and nothing is true at the same time, where every possibility exists and we don’t know what to do. What’s interesting is that – as we’ll see shortly – just about every tradition provides very clear instructions about how to prepare for that moment, and what to do in that moment: but unfortunately the awareness of that teaching tends to be forgotten in the panic of the moment. Especially so, it seems, in the business-context… Oh well.

Emotion in the ‘Tactics’ space tends to follow a somewhat slower-paced roller-coaster: ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ following perceptions of perceived ‘success’ or perceived ‘failure’, much as Jorge describes above. They don’t happen in-the-moment, as at the Operations layer: instead, they seem to rise and fall in response to reflection on news about seemingly ‘outside’ events. These emotions have a chance to settle in and drive tactical-decisions simply because there’s time enough to do so. But in the greater scheme of things – in other words, the concerns of strategy – these emotions are just as much of a distraction as is the panic at the Operations layer. And they’re rarely any more helpful in terms of guiding valid decision-making, either.

Emotion in the ‘Strategy’ space tends to be smoother in flow again, much more consistent – perhaps because it’s a better fit with the nature of strategy? It’s often described in something resembling meditative terms, quieter, more reflective, yet definitely ’emotion’ in the sense of providing energy for movement. The key point is that it doesn’t seem to be subject to those wild swings: instead, the tendency towards labile reactivity is countered by a clearly-felt sense of vocation – often expressed as a vision or ‘mission’. And without those stable anchors, the strategy itself becomes unstable. Hence the very real importance of vision and the like in an enterprise-architecture.

In turn, a re-focus on vision helps to damp-out the wild swings of emotion in the tactical space, and help people to align tactical decisions with strategy. Down at the operations level, a clear vision or equivalent anchor is one of the few things that can help in managing the risk of panic: it provides a known point of certainty, a ‘centre’ or still-point of calm in the midst of the real-time chaos. That’s what every classical tradition tells us – about to reach and maintain that ‘still-point’ at the midst of the action. And again, it helps to ensure that each action is aligned with the chosen tactics and strategy.

But there is a practical problem here – an important one. This is that the emotions of the real-time panic, and those wild highs and lows at the tactical level – despite the fact that they rarely go anywhere useful – can and do become highly addictive. To be specific, it’s mainly an addiction to adrenalin, in any or all of its four modes – fight, flight, freeze or fornicate. (Watch the action at a typical stock-market trading-desk over a day or so to see all of those in action, sometimes all at the same time… 🙂 ) Addiction to adrenalin provides a dangerous and often-destructive delusion of ‘feeling alive’ – whether or not what is actually being done is in any way helping towards the enterprise strategies or goals. Yet because it is an addiction, there will often be a lot of reaction against anything that would help to curb the addiction. For example, there will be lip-service paid to risk-management and so on, but in effect often passive or even active sabotage of such risk-reduction, because the resultant chaos provides opportunities for ‘hero’-style fire-fighting against metaphoric or literal fires; preventing fires is ‘boring’, not least because nothing ‘exciting’ will seem to happen.

So there’s a difficult balance here. In the enterprise-architecture, we need the vision and the like to provide a stable anchor for everything that happens in the enterprise, leading a real sense of aliveness, of collectively creating something that is meaningful and ‘greater than self’. Yet at the same time we need to allow enough space for that perhaps-illusory feeling of ‘aliveness’ that comes from the real-time roller-coaster. How to achieve that balance in real-world practice across all of a real organisation – not just a start-up, for example, but a huge multi-national corporation – is probably the hardest ‘ask’ and task any EA could face. But there are plenty of organisations where that does happen, to some identifiable degree, and with identifiable success: Zappos , Interface Inc or Ricardo Semler’s Semco are well-known examples that come to mind. So in principle at least, we should be able to do this in any organisation – by paying attention to the emotions that literally drive the enterprise.

I’ll leave the last words here to Jorge Barba, in his article cited above:

It’s easy to get caught up with emotions because some other startup appeared on TechCrunch before you did. It’s the nature of this thing called entrepreneurship. But just remember one thing:

Startups don’t become relevant by focusing on technology, they become big businesses by focusing on being better humans.

And it’s the big businesses or the startups that seem to think ‘they’ve made itthat consistently forget this simple principle.

Something to think about, anyway. Or, perhaps better, to feel? 🙂

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