The law of tightening aperture

What happens to the teams with wide apertures over time? Does the aperture stay the same? What about the teams with narrow strategy apertures? When I started examining these questions, I recognized a familiar pattern. This pattern seems so pervasive that I will go ahead and boldly proclaim it as a law: the law of tightening aperture. Here it is:

Given a changing environment, the strategy aperture of any organizational unit tends to only tighten over time.

Using super-plain language, the law states that every team’s openness to exploring new opportunities diminishes over time. Every organization that exists today is highly likely to be more strategically flexible than the same organization tomorrow.

💰 The requirement of value

Why does this happen? Strategy aperture appears to be subject to a gravity-like force that can be resisted and sometimes counterbalanced, but never expected to relent: the force of homeostasis. To make it a bit less concrete and easily digestible in the context of this essay, I will rename it to the force of requirement of value.

The requirement of value can be described as a collective expectation that an organization will at some point deliver value. Given how much we put into it, we’d like to receive it back – and get at least a little bit more  (notice how this rhymes with homeostasis). 

There are organizations that don’t have these requirements – but usually, they don’t have strategies, either. In this way, the requirement of value both creates the need for strategy and imposes the law on this strategy. 

The law of tightening aperture applies to any kind of organization, including polities and ecosystems. As long as there’s the requirement of value, the same dynamic will emerge.

The requirement of value doesn’t always come from the need for tangible outcomes (profits, growth, etc.). Team identity can play a big role in the tightening of the aperture. A team that painstakingly discovers who they are and becomes comfortable with that is the team can’t become something altogether different. 

As an illustration, consider Tuckman’s phases of group development model. The “performing” phase is highly sought after and celebrated when reached, yet it is also the one with the narrowest aperture. There is a reason why there’s the “adjourning” or “transforming” stage tacked on at the end: once a team learns how to perform, it must necessarily cease to exist in its current form to do something different. 

Another source of requirement of value might be the collective desire for predictability. This comes up very strongly in the rapidly changing environments. When everything is up in the air, the need for stability can feel existential. This desire may lead to a paradox during the times of change: just when the team needs to keep its aperture wide to better anticipate and see new opportunities, the collective fear of uncertainty will keep tightening the organization’s strategy aperture.

🏛️ Not necessarily a bad thing

Aperture tightening is not always a bad outcome. It might be exactly what we’re looking for. Teams with a narrow aperture are easily pointed at the problems whose shapes are within their aperture. Confidently solving that problem is their unique gift. The key here is to understand and be intentional about the change.

When we seek a tighter aperture, we usually talk about focus. For example, the phrase “more wood behind fewer arrows” heralded such a change for Google back in 2011. Transitioning from a wide aperture to a narrow aperture is often seen as a necessary step to improve a team’s ability to create value efficiently. This is all good. Aperture tightening works out great when the viable niche the organization ended up pointing at is durable in the long term. For instance, it is exceedingly likely that people will want to consume electricity or the Internet for the foreseeable future. No matter how tight it’s aperture, an organization can thrive providing either. 

We just need to remember that – at least according to the law I present in this essay – there will be no easy way to reverse that shift. Becoming more open to contemplating new opportunities is much, much harder once the aperture tightens. If the shape of the industry changes, and the niche shifts, we will suddenly discover that we are unable to adjust, battered by the winds of change and unable to even see them clearly. Like, hey those cassette tapes were cool, but if I built my business on them, I am in for a nasty surprise in the 90s.

⏪ Can the tightening be reversed?

Can the aperture tightening be reversed? Not permanently. As I mentioned earlier, it’s best to view this force as gravity. To keep a soccer ball in the air, I need to exert energy. The default state of the ball is to lay still on the ground. Similarly, the default state of a strategy aperture is to be as narrow as possible. We can resist this force by investing our energy into it, and counteract its effects. But these investments will not have a permanent effect.

Anytime we get an impression that organization has revitalized itself, it is doubtful that this happened to a permanent broadening of the aperture. More likely, a “kick-in-the-pants” event loosened the aperture long enough to spot a new promising similarly-shaped opportunity and allowed re-pointing of the organization toward it. Or perhaps we’re actually observing a wholly different organization, similar in name only – an outcome of (likely painful) transformation. 

As organization’s leaders, when we decide where we want to invest our time, it might be useful to look at where we want to be in relation to our current strategy aperture. Relative to the aperture we have, do we want it tightened or broadened?

If we need a tighter aperture, we must be very careful about embarking on our team-focusing venture: is this a long-term viable niche? If yes, let’s plow ahead. If it is likely to shift (or is shifting already), we are making ourselves more vulnerable to disruption.

If we determine that we need to broaden our strategy aperture, it might be that the entirety of our job will be resisting the law of tightening aperture. This is why leading teams and organizations may feel so challenging and downright futile: we keep trying to walk against gravity. It’s a task that is feasible in the short-term, but not in the long term. Eventually, that soccer ball has to come down.

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