Strategy Aperture

The concept of embodied strategy continues to captivate me. Recently, I found a more resonant way to talk about the narrowness and breadth of the cone of embodied strategy: the strategy aperture.

As I explored earlier,  organizations tend to have a certain gait, a way of doing and thinking that they develop over time. No matter how much we try to convince them otherwise, they will always veer toward that certain way – hence the term “embodied” strategy, used in contrast to “stated” strategy.

The cone of the embodied strategy is a degree to which the organization is subject to its embodied strategy. Put very simply, the cone of the embodied strategy indicates how much flexibility we have in pursuing various future opportunities. Narrow cones indicate very little flexibility – we are set in our ways, and that’s the way we are. Broad cones indicate a lot of flexibility – the world is our oyster.

Borrowing the term from physics, we can use the word “aperture” to indicate the breadth/narrowness of the cone of embodied strategy. 

More narrow aperture means that as an organization, we are well-suited for producing only a certain class of ideas. Think of a team that’s laser-focused on a particular problem or highly specialized to build a certain kind of product. 

Broader apertures allow organizations to be nimble, more mercurial, able to anticipate and act on a wide variety of opportunities. Some – most – of these will not pan out, and some will hit the motherlode.

Neither broad or narrow strategy aperture is bad or good in itself – however, it must be matched to the environment.

Narrow strategy aperture is very useful in more elephant-like environments, where it’s all about optimizing the fit into the well-known, stable niche. The more narrow our aperture, the more elephant-like environments will be attractive to us.

The flexibility the broader aperture brings is very effective in dandelion’s environments: brand new spaces, where constraints aren’t clearly defined. The broader the aperture, the more comfortable the team is in a dandelion environment.

How do we find out strategy aperture for our organization? My intuition is that we need to look at how this organization is constrained. Put differently, what are the limits that confine the cone of  its embodied strategy?

Applying a framing from the problem understanding framework, we can look for three  limits: time, capacity, and attachment. Note: these limits are nearly always tangled with each other in  mutually reinforcing ways.

The time limit is the easiest to spot and is the most intuitive. Does everything within our organization seem to happen slower than on the outside? The more emphatically we confirm this statement, the more likely our aperture is on the narrower side. Conversely, does it feel like our team moves faster than everyone can blink? Then we probably have a broader strategy aperture.

The limit of capacity is also fairly straightforward. What we don’t know creates a negative space  where we can’t create new ideas. Skills, expertise, and the breadth of experience are key factors in pushing the organization’s capacity limits outward. How specialized are we as a team? Deeper specialization narrows the aperture – and so do team cultures that produce echo chambers and groupthink. 

The third limit is attachment. Words like “risk”, “downside”, and “uncertainty” typically come up to describe this limit’s contributing factors. For example, the more customers we’re serving with our products, the more risk we will be taking to pursue new opportunities – this narrows our embodied strategy aperture. The more existential the idea of change feels within our organization, the less broad our aperture is.

By studying these limits, we should get a pretty good sense of our team’s strategy aperture. Now comes the key question: does it match our environment? If the answer is a confident yes, then we are set to accomplish amazing things. And more than likely, we’re not even asking ourselves these questions, busy doing those things. However, if trying to answer this question sows doubt in our minds, we might be in a mismatched environment: our embodied strategy prevents us from being effective to achieve what we’re aiming for.

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