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Strategy as Algorithm

Strategy, like innovation and lots of other business buzzwords, seems to mean less the more it’s mentioned. I thought this definition, from Lawrence Freedman (who I’ve never heard of) via Martin Weigel’s blog is a nice one:

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Fits with a thought I have had lately around how strategy is really about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions. Basically you’ve identified what you ultimately want to accomplish and strategy is how you drive towards that. The challenge, as outlined here, is that nothing’s ever quite as neat and tidy as we might hope. So rather than talking about strategy as a blueprint (or similar), which suggests everything is in its perfect place down to the millimeter, it’s better to think about it as an algorithm that helps you make the right decision as you traverse whatever landscape you happen to encounter. Algorithms are nothing more than a set of rules applied to any information or situation, which takes into account what you understand about the data and tries to find the best answer according to the ideas/ideals the programmer has set forth.

November 25, 2014


  • Culture as Algorithm | Noah Brier dot Com says:

    […] a good reception, I decided to build on my strategy as algorithm post from the other day over at the Percolate blog. Specifically I tried to answer what it meant […]

  • Stuart Eccles says:

    My engineering brain sometimes thinks of those strategic guard-rails you talk about as the automated test suite for the business. As a set of assertions to determine if the code written conforms to a set of expectations. A “test suite” not only allows for scaling and distribution of decisions/code creation but also for longevity, preserving the reasoning for the future helping answer “why was it done this way”.

    if this a decent analogy then i would ask “where is the CI for business decisions?”

  • rob finn says:

    probably why job description are guilty of overmentions of the word strategy…1) hard to spec out whats needed 2) want someone who is adaptable

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