The Time of the Surprise: Strategy for the Wooden World

I spoke this week at the Inclusive 2040 event hosted in Plymouth, England, to explore the future of sustainable, equitable growth in that city.

Alongside speakers including Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute, Fiona Tuck of Metro Dynamics, Alexis Bowater OBE, and Tim Sydenham, I presented an interactive session on strategic foresight, drawing on an adapted version of the IMAJINE scenarios.

Britain’s so-called “Ocean City” has been a strategically important naval site for centuries, thanks to its shipyards and dockyards. In exploring the future for the city, we also wanted to acknowledge its long history. Who we have been in the past shapes who we are today, and the potential for who we might need to become tomorrow.

In Plymouth’s naval heyday, the time of the Napoleonic wars, each ship was its own “wooden world”, a microcosm moving through the ocean. The image of a man o’war sailing into battle evokes a particular notion of strategy: directing one’s own organization like a vessel through changing waters, assessing the conditions of the weather and the sea, weighing one’s limited resources, managing the morale of one’s crew, and making judicious choices in combat and competition with other, rival ships.

At times, leading an organization can feel like steering one of the ships pictured in Dominic Serres’ Return of a Fleet into Plymouth Harbour: even in a familiar setting, all is not certain. Some hazards are evident and well-charted; others may lie below the waterline; others still may vary with the conditions of the sea and the sky. Each figure in Serres’ painting, whether on the land or aboard a vessel large or small, will have a different perspective on the waters which the fleet is seeking to successfully navigate.

Such multiple perspectives can prove useful in helping us to understand the three elements which Geoffrey Vickers identified as fundamental to wise decision-making in his book The Art of Judgment:

What is going on? What does it mean for us? And what can we do about it?

Yet our world is different from that of centuries past. The connections and complexities which define it have evolved considerably, as has the speed and quality of communication. Strategizing today involves much more than guiding a single ship, squadron, or fleet in competition against hostile powers.

As Trudi Lang and Richard Whittington write in Harvard Business Review, we must adopt a broad view of strategy, rather than leaders’ traditional approach of “taking the long view and focusing on where they’re going”:

Thinking narrowly, in terms of traditional sectors, industries, or geographies, can limit or blindside an organization. A better approach is to think in terms of systems. Doing so sensitizes leaders to broad changes of context and allows them to bring actors together from many sectors, which in turn enables the creation of new value.

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