September 16, 2014

The power of language in strategy: the case for prosponsive thinking

Henry Ford fought an epic battle to make his startup company successful in the late 1800’s. The risks he took were significant, as were the rewards. Henry ended up selling over 15 million Model T cars to become the world’s first billionaire. He also revolutionised the structure of employee remuneration and introduced the ‘moving production line’ which is still a primary feature of vehicle assembly today.

Needless to say, Henry exhibited an extremely strong personality and was a ruthless industrialist and leader. When his senior management team initiated the design of a replacement for the Model T while he was overseas for example, he flew into an immediate rage when they proudly revealed their prototype to him upon his return. Although they had thought he would be impressed, Henry instead set about ripping it apart – quite literally, frame by frame.

Given his success, it would be easy to blame his anger on an over inflated ego. It is my contention that there is another reason for his rage and that it is attributable to the fact that strategy concepts and a common language for strategy weren’t even invented until the mid-1960’s. Whereas Henry was above all else a visionary, at the height of his leadership in the early 1900’s, it would have been very difficult for him to express and share his ideas of strategy and the future with others. Although it was obvious to him what features a car should have in its future design, his colleagues were at a loss to understand what they had done wrong.

I suspect that it is the same absence of language that is the cause of similar levels of frustration and often poor strategic thinking in business today; the implications are significant. I ask you; do you ever wonder why politicians often refer to a need for policyreform, but rarely the creation of new policy? In business, do you wonder why managers and leaders appear to be more often concerned with the way in which other ‘re’ words will be deployed (reframing, renewing, restructuring, reengineering, regenerating, revitalising, and reinventing), but rarely invention, creation or elaboration of something different or new?

It is my view that there is a need to invent a supplement to the foregoing re words when engaging in strategic thinking; and that the most appropriate word for that is not yet a word at all. Henry Ford provides insight to this observation, as does Steve Jobs. Both are renowned for their skills in anticipating future technology and pre-empting the design of new products and services best suited to future demand; in time periods that preceded competitors – by a long way. So what did they do that others didn’t? Tradition suggests that they were able to foresee and enact an appropriate response to anticipated change. In less sympathetic circles, a response is described as being a knee jerk reaction to change that was unforseen – but should have been.  Amidst entrenched cultures and embedded conventions organisational behaviours that inhibit appropriate responses to change are ingrained in nearly all of us. It is my contention then that a lack of language is a factor contributing to a responsiveness and that this in turn is an action that is limited in scope to that of adaption alone. That is, it is an ability to make decisions that are forced on us as we strive to adapt (alignment and realignment) to changes in the environment, rather than anticipate, pre-empt and design innovative, unique responses to change. What we do in fact is respond to change in either a reactive or proactive manner.

The context for all ‘re’ words is BACK & AGAIN, but when thinking strategically it is my observation that it is also appropriate to be thinking about invention, not just adaptation. This means we need to be concerned with ‘pro’ behaviours (FORWARD & FORTH) as much as ‘re’ behaviours. A word to describe proactive invention though doesn’t exist, hence my proposal to formalise use of the word that describes both a proactive and reactive behaviour, that is more than just a response; that of ‘sponse’ itself. What I am suggesting is the introduction of sponse as a proper word in the English language. Its definition would be “a way of proactively and reactively thinking about problems that have connotations concerned with potential future outcomes”. To be responsive is to adapt to change, to be prosponsive is to influence and even pre-empt a need for change, to the extent that it enables invention as well as adaptation, or both (just ask Steve or Henry).

An absence of an appropriate sponse (of both types) to difficult strategic problems can be significant. We can readily recognise that an absence of strategic responsiveness resulted in the demise of many business entities including Nokia phones, Kodak and Yellow Pages. A lack of prosponsiveness though can be equally damaging. Here I return again to Henry Ford and his colleagues at the other two North American car majors (Chrysler and General Motors). All founders of these iconic brands would be devastated to learn their companies had volunteered for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy or its equivalent.  Each suffered from an inability to both adapt and invent new business models, until it was far too late – even though warning signs had been apparent for years. In the absence of the term prosponsiveness though, it could be that the appropriate topics of conversation were never on the agenda. What do you think? Do you engage in re and pro-sponsive thinking when engaging in strategic conversations?