The Wave Form Of Complex Strategy

I’ve been thinking about waves a lot lately. As I said to a recent group of marketing technologists, nature doesn’t plan in straight lines. Nature plays out in waves.  As soon as you start looking for oscillations, you seem them everywhere. Seasons, our brains, the economy -- if complexity lurks there, chances are there is a corresponding wave.

So how do waves tie into my recent two columns (part one and part two) about agency relationships? Simply this: Like most complex things, our corporate strategy should also plot itself against a wave-like cycle. And in that cycle, there is a place for both external partnerships and internal execution.

Let me give you two examples of the ubiquity of waves.



Remember how I talked about Bayesian Strategy? Again, it’s a wave, or, if you’d prefer, a loop (which is simply a wave plotted in a different form). It is a process of setting a frame, opening that frame to external validation and then updating that frame based on our newly perceived reality. This approach to strategy borrows from the work done on how we make sense of the world, which is also a loop, or a wave.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s  “Science of Great Teams” also embodies its own wave: “Successful teams, especially successful creative teams, oscillate between exploration for discovery and engagement for integration of the ideas gathered from outside sources. At the MIT Media Lab, this pattern accounted for almost half of the differences in creative output of research groups.”

The thing about waves is that they require very different approaches at the peaks and valleys of the wave. The oscillation is caused by this dynamic tension. The act of gathering input is very different than the act of synthesizing and acting on that output. And it’s very difficult to do both at the same time.

Again, Pentland found this in his observation of effective teams: “Exploration and engagement, while both good, don’t easily coexist, because they require that the energy of team members be put to two different uses.”

Increasingly, in complex situations, we have to incorporate wave planning into our strategic approach. And when it comes to marketing, this will likely include a wave that winds itself through working with an external partner to gather the value that comes from their external perspective, and then creating an internal “sense-making” discipline with an embedded marketing team. This will require a clear understanding of control and authority transference at the appropriate times. Like the exploration/engagement cycle of Pentland’s teams, both are necessary -- but they shouldn’t necessarily run in parallel.

I’ve found in the past that most of the value that can come from a strong external partnership gets burned off in turf wars, with executives discounting outside information and advice because it doesn’t come from “inside." Even when this information is accepted, it’s subsumed into internal dialogues and documentation, losing whatever insight it once offered.

Similarly, the partner loses precious cycles trying to keep up to speed with the internal directional course-changes that inevitably happen.

The problem comes when both these processes try to co-exist and run along the same straight line. The result is a rapidly zig-zagging line that tries to stay the course, but loses any energy it might have had in constantly readjusting itself to meet “straight-line” strategic objectives.

I believe the right answer to the in-house/agency debate is not an “either/or” -- but rather, a wave-aware “and.”

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