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Strategy as Algorithm

Perhaps you’ve seen the video of Boston Dynamics’ robot Atlas exiting their building for a walk in a snow-covered forest, “going to work” stacking boxes in a warehouse, getting up after being toppled by a human, and then leaving for the day presumably heading out for more adventures. It is remarkable on many levels but the one that is most interesting is that everything Atlas does is governed by a set of simple rules.

Most previous generations of robots were built and programmed to accomplish specific tasks like lifting car doors and placing them on the automobile frame. Another robot would place and tighten the door’s bolts. These sorts of robots know exactly what they are to do and they do it over and over. Atlas, on the other hand, has no prior knowledge of the surfaces in front of it or that a human coworker is going to give him a good whack with a big stick. The algorithms, or simple rules, Atlas follows enable agility and adaptiveness to whatever comes its way. Atlas is less “machine” and more “complex adaptive system.” That’s an entirely new way to think about robots, one that requires a different sort of programming.

That’s a good metaphor for the perspective being communicated in this article about strategy from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). The authors make the case that our traditional approaches to strategy, like strategic planning, don’t work anymore and that we need strategy tools to help us be more experimental, recognize patterns, and decentralize strategy execution by the whole of the organization.

Traditional approaches to strategic planning are like the computer code that was written to program a robot to do a single task. A sort of “fix-it-and-forget-it” approach to strategy. What we now understand about our communities and organizations is that they need to behave much more like Atlas, Boston Dynamic’s robot. Like Atlas, we really have no clue what the future has in store for us and what we might come across tomorrow, much less a decade from now. Old-school approaches to strategy often focused on developing a plan for a long time horizon, five, ten, even decades into the future.

An agile strategy discipline is one that offers a set of simple rules to follow, a strategy algorithm if you will, that allows organizations to be agile and function like the complex adaptive systems they are. The rules Atlas follows may be simple but they took time to incorporate into its design. The same will be true of your organization or community, should you chose to begin following a strategy algorithm. One other point - a strategy algorithm will be no good if it is limited to just the CEO or the Chief Strategy Officer. The set of rules will need to be applied enterprise wide.

If your current strategy seems to have played itself out and you are unsure of the terrain ahead or if you want to be able to quickly regain your balance in case of an unexpected crisis, you may want to consider a strategy algorithm, an agile approach to strategy.

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Introduction to Strategic Doing: An Agile Approach to Strategy

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