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Strategy and uncertainty: "What cannot be avoided, must be embraced"

Alain-Charles Martinet*

Professor Emeritus in Management Sciences and Management

IAE Lyon School of Management

Jean-Moulin University Lyon 3

*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute.


Article originally published on The Conversation France.

This text is based on the proceedings of the conference organized by the FNEGE, the Xerfi Group and L'Encyclopédie de la Stratégie on November 25, 2015 on the theme "Conducting strategy and making decisions under uncertainty".

Shakespearean fulgurance invites us to the essential. It is not a question of "facing" or "confronting" a general uncertainty, an anguished backdrop that would be stretched out before the men of action, but rather of embracing the uncertainties that each person perceives in his or her own way, and which offer as many spaces of freedom as threats. We must confront them rather than invoke them to excuse in advance the failures of business as usual.

Let's leave financial engineering to its mission of transforming some of these uncertainties into more or less calculated risks and deriving from them more or less hidden supports, to focus on strategy, which is precisely made to move forward in spite of, or rather thanks to, uncertainty, an irreducible component of this complexity that Edgar Morin has transformed into a method for understanding and acting. In the absence of uncertainty, calculation and programming are sufficient and render strategy useless. If uncertainty were absolute, strategy would be impossible. But all concrete situations offer intertwined certainties and uncertainties. And it is this entanglement that justifies strategic work.

The true nature of strategy

Strategy that is not reduced to economic calculation, to the Pavlovian resolution of problems posed by others, that refuses the sole thrust of technology or the dictatorship of the moment. But it is a strategy that strives to create favorable rules of the game, to enhance the potential of the collective enterprise, to preserve degrees of autonomy while managing the interdependencies that give rise not only to competition but also to allies and partners.

Strategy yes, but which one? No longer the dream of a "French garden" in any case, drawn on paper in its smallest clumps where all the possible decisions would be thought out in advance, by beautiful intellectual mechanisms of course, according to all the scenarios, themselves conceived by the sole virtues of the work of the mind... Let's leave this dated and now counter-productive vision of strategy as an "anti-hasard plan", while fighting against its correlatives that are too resistant in French education, culture and governance. Provisions that carried great projects but have become incongruous in a dense, fluid, frenetic and hurried world where the connection of ideas, relationships and flows are more important than the linear sequence of things, positions and barriers that we believe to be established.

Descartes and Spinoza were opposing geniuses, but it is the latter who captures us by his powerful actuality. No planning but a pragmatic conception of strategy, as synthesized by the father of knowledge-based management, Nonaka, associated with a former red guard of Mao who became a professor of strategy. The "6C" strategy - communication obliges! - is seen as contingent, ongoing, co-creative, collective and... courageous. Let's underline three major points of convergence with our own convictions, formed over 45 years of research and multiple experiences in strategy.

The intelligence of situations

First and foremost, the primacy of the context, of places and moments, of singularity and customization, as opposed to the ideology of "off-the-ground management", of universal rules of strategy, of ready-to-think "best practices" that it would be enough to apply to succeed. Intelligence of situations by frequenting them assiduously, of course, as the engineers and technical-commercial staff of the successful German or Swiss ETIs do better than others, but also by bringing these fields to oneself, as the resources of i-business intelligence allow today. Also by questioning those who work on them in depth and who are not necessarily the media "experts". Because maps also create territories and there are several sets of maps.

A fine understanding of the contexts to better nourish the intentionalities at the top with the emergences that are only revealed in action. And therefore, the unrestrained use of dialogue that allows us to maintain a creative tension between polarities in struggle-cooperation in which the third party included, far from being a lack of reasoning, is indispensable to the maintenance of dynamics. There is no relevant and effective strategy today without support from an ecosystem, no legitimate technology without sociology of acceptance, no factors without actors, no project without learning, no centralization without decentralization, no autonomy without interdependence...

The proper use of dialogic

Like the off-piste skier, it is advisable to choose, for a time, playgrounds that are sufficiently vast and connected to evolve flexibly and more freely, to maintain dynamic imbalance, a very different kind of sculling from the "golden mean" or the "cursor" that cannot be found or are inert. To use the potentialities of the terrain, the direction of the slope; to feel the points of catastrophe, the irreversible crossings that bring you to rocky bars or to the bottom of crevasses. Fortunately, the younger generations are fond of sliding sports as well as hip-hop, and they are well able to feel what knowledge assimilated by the body means, the persistent learning to reach the effectiveness, the efficiency and the aesthetics of the right movement. Like the emulation of teamwork and networking in worlds where flows, relationships and connections rapidly multiply the power to act.

But these dialogues are disorienting without a few fixed points that require a real company policy, legitimate governance and responsible leaders, as well as the internalization by each person of impassable ethics. Was it necessary that VW's remarkable journey, built intelligently and step by step over the last 20 years, should be exposed to billions of dollars in fines, loss of capitalization, loss of reputation because some people - who? how? why? - thought they could get away with an illusory trick. What self-inflicted uncertainty!

A policy that also knows how to integrate the inevitable recursion between ends and means that manifests itself along the way. Every new entrepreneur feels that he or she must deal with the causal rationality of the objectives and means of the business plan demanded by his or her financiers and taught to him or her by his or her trainers, but he or she must also cunningly cobble together an effective, viable and profitable business model by mobilizing the means at hand, making his or her objectives evolve according to the resources available and the effects observed, progressively forging a vision through action, meetings and dialogues, enlisting partners with new skills and who are genuinely committed. In short, to build and evolve at the same time as its ecosystem. Because creative freedom is not without uncertainties.

Article translated from French with


Read also...

Alain Charles Martinet's articles on The Conversation France.

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