Embodied Strategy

I was having a great conversation with a colleague about organizational learning and at one point, I kind of just blurted out that strategies are embodied. Here’s my attempt to expand a bit on this idea.

Put very simply, organizations usually have two strategies: one that is stated, and one that is embodied by the organization. The first one is typically highly visible, and the second is mostly invisible and only detectable by its effects. As I mentioned before, every organization has a strategy. Even if this strategy is not stated, the presence of outcomes and the patterns they follow indicates some sort of strategy at play. It might not be the same as the stated strategy. It could be a strategy that accelerates the team’s demise. It could be a strategy that favors short-term outcomes to the long-term ones. But there’s a strategy nevertheless.

Why do I find this seemingly nitpicky point so important? Because when we say in exasperation “this team/organization/unit can’t do strategy!”, what we’re actually saying is that we have given it our best, but failed to influence this team/organization/unit in attaining a state of executing on a strategy that is coherent with its stated intentions. What I am offering here is some light on where the source of such a failure may reside.

If you ever met a human, you might notice that we are full of habits. Some of them are good for us. Some of them are not so much. Organizations are bunches of humans, so they follow the same pattern. We call some of these habits rules and processes, and others norms and culture – or maybe even mission-critical infrastructure. Organization’s embodied strategy emerges from the full collection of its habits. It is this embedded strategy that defines the range of the outcomes and behavior patterns that are within the organization’s reach.

As we all know from our own personal experiences, habits are hard to change, especially without putting in some intentional and patient effort. Some habits are so ingrained that they become part of our identity. This might add clarity to why sometimes, despite our best attempts to devise and instill a different strategy — no matter how elegant and sound — the outcomes remain the same. If our ideas fall outside of the organization’s range of embodied strategy, our efforts to realize them will be in vain. The habits will hold us tightly within that range. 

To visualize what’s happening, imagine that there’s a vertical line on the horizontal scale of time, representing the range of what’s possible, constrained by the embodied strategy. Even if the range stays constant over time, the choices we make are path-dependent. So, from our vantage point of the present, the line will produce a cone-like shape when projected into the future.  If our desired strategy plots a course outside of this cone, this strategy is unlikely to succeed. In such cases, the stated strategy becomes detached from the embodied strategy, resulting in loss of coherence.

It also becomes evident that if we are to influence what an organization does, we must begin with first understanding its embodied strategy and the range that it affords. We need to know the shape of the cone. Rather than throwing up our hands in frustration, we need to stop looking at the stated strategies, load up on patience and dig deep.

Since it’s all habits, the facets of the organization’s embodied strategy will be hiding in plain sight. They will not seem like the usual strategy artifacts we’d find in a shared folder.  Embodied strategy is tacit knowledge, and not something that is cleanly captured in a slide deck or a spreadsheet. In fact, the less noticed the habit, the more likely it is part of the embodied strategy. In many cases, only newcomers or outsides can spot them. This is why I love chatting with folks who recently joined the team. They have the best chance of seeing what the rest of us have long stopped noticing.

There seems to be a fairly strong relationship between the age of the team and the shape of the cone. A newly-formed team will have an extremely wide-ended cone: there’s very little strategy that’s actually embodied. Nearly everything is possible. As the team grows and develops its collection of habits, the cone narrows. Mature teams are stuck with the needle-like cones: they graduate to what they’re supposed to do, and that’s the only thing they can do. The embodied strategy becomes a trap that doesn’t let them change.

I hope you hear parallels with the Innovator’s Dilemma in this story. Aversion to risk and sticking with what works isn’t some simple thing that organizations can just choose not to do. When the next big opportunity manifests, no matter how strikingly, a mature organization can’t act on it because its embodied strategy, over time, shrunk the cone of possibilities into a laser-thin line. The negligible likelihood of this line intersecting with new opportunities is what foretells the organization’s future obsolescence.

This shrinking happens naturally, as a result of the team encountering challenges and obstacles, finding ways to overcome them and committing these experiences into its memory. Some of these might be company lore. Some of these will be new gates in the launch process. Many will result in the broadly-adopted tools and frameworks being built. Each – though good and useful as a matter of progress – narrows the width of the cone bit by bit. This process is not something we can prevent from happening, and we’re better off realizing that it’s always at work.

Especially for organizations that have been around for a while, we must understand that while we can change what the organization does, the manner in which this doing happens is rarely affected. For instance, following Clayton Christensen’s advice in The Innovator’s Solution, we might decide to form a distinct team that will pursue a strategy that puts us outside of the organization’s current cone of embodied strategy. However, if we’re not careful, this team will choose to rely on the larger organization’s well-established norms, practices, and processes. As a result, we might be surprised to find out that our attempts to reach our desired destination are thwarted by the same cone of embodied strategy that we wanted to break out of.

It seems to me that every exercise in strategy must begin with the study of embodied strategy. The whole “know thyself” bit may sound cliche, but there’s a reason why both Roger Martin and Richard Rumelt emphasized “coherent actions” and “capabilities” as part of strategy work: they were pointing at the notion that our strategic aspirations are constrained by the cone of habits our organizations have accumulated.

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