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Strategy and surfing the wave of serendipity

2009 December 30
by Nicholas Gruen

When preparing for a talk to HOCI – the Heads of Collecting Agencies – I checked out this piece on “the National Library of Wales’ development of a strategic approach to meeting user needs in a post-Web 2.0 world.”  This is what the author says:

Whilst what distinguished success from failure in these instances was often not a paper document outlining what was to be achieved but a combination of organisational support, a willingness to experiment (and to fail) – and most importantly – a clear understanding of what was achievable.

Now there are things that I clearly agree with here – particularly the need for ‘permission to fail’.  What about the insistence that the most important thing was to understand what was achievable: well who could object to that? It seems the very acme of commonsense. Now if we take it as a piece of commonsense then perhaps it means that if you set up a social media site, don’t expect that volunteers are going to start solving all your problems.  But if that’s the case, then it’s also a pretty empty thing to say. If it’s making a strong claim to insight – which the body language of the paragraph suggests it is, I think it is both wrong and that it contradicts the earlier injunction to be prepared to experiment.  If an experiment is anything, it seems to me it is something that one cannot have a “clear understanding” of what it might achieve.

In fact there’s a paradox here because I salute the National Library of Wales for even having a Web 2.0 strategy, and a closer look shows me that there’s much to like about their actual strategy. I still think the sentence above is at least a little wide of the mark, but my real concern is that I see an awful lot of nonsense swept into the bromides about strategy and strategic alignment in other, less worthy contexts.  All too often in my experience, top management talk a lot about strategic alignment but it becomes a kind of hand-waving exercise – on its own strategic alignment is an empty expression.

And while a formal Web 2.0 strategy for an organisation might provide a worthwhile fillip to those in the organisation who really want to get some Web 2.0 things done, and while at some stage it will be a precondition for really grasping the opportunities in a big way, the risk is that such a strategy is put together and agreed by people who have little passion for it, or perhaps no real knowledge or even familiarity with it. In this situation, I’d rather see progress being made, at least initially, at least until some critical mass of opinion forms, by allowing those who do want to do things a little more scope to do it.

The other things that tend to go with strategy – like specifying outcomes and then measuring them may not just slow things down, they may gum up the works if invoked too soon.  And one of the lessons of Mashup Australia for me anyway is that play and free association, throwing the doors open can achieve a great deal – though the catch is you can’t really know until you try it (so much for a clear understanding of what’s achievable).  If some ’strategic’ process must be invoked in order to authorise such things, well and good. But beyond that I’d proceed slowly on strategy, including on expectations of what’s achievable with education, experimentation and lots of learning about others’ experiments and attempts to emulate the successful ones until there is a fair bit of familiarity within an organisation.

I was listening to this interview with Paul Buchheit yesterday and as he notes, all the social media platforms – like Twitter, Facebook and his own FriendFeed (recently acquired by Facebook) are highly adaptive strategically. All of them are doing a whole lot of things which are not what their original strategy called for. For them strategy is a highly dynamic process – something to help them surf the wave of serendipity, not beyond that, a planning process which is likely to slow them down.

And to surf this wave it’s necessary for organisations to open themselves up – to ideas, capabilities and potential connections throughout their organisations and beyond. That’s why Dell opened up Idea Storm and why Google and Atlassian have 20 percent time giving employees sufficient autonomy not only to work on new ideas of their own for the company but also to make the associations of interest and enthusiasm within (and perhaps outside) the organisation which might turn out well.

In so far as strategy is invoked to provide authority for this kind of thing, then that makes a lot of sense to me, but the language of strategy, the language of setting goals, expectations, measuring outputs tends to suggest other things, most of which have ‘top down’ overtones.  If it’s really true that Web 2.0 is serendipitous, then at the very least strategy can’t be the prime mover of the process. Strategy, it seems to me has a role in authorising some process of search. It’s also OK to have some preconceptions of what you’re looking for.   That’s like a hypothesis in science. But you also have to be ready to be surprised – not just surprised that something that was tried or not tried worked or not, but surprised that worthwhile things quite different to those that had been planned and hoped for emerged from the endeavour and to be ready to reorder your strategic priorities and do it quickly.

8 Responses
  1. 2010 January 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    This is a great post and draws out one dimension of the subversive potential of Web 2.0.

    The subversion in this case is at two levels. The first is that, if the true ethic of Web 2.0 is the serendipitous discovery of meaning and value, whose outcomes cannot be determined to any great extent before you start, the often thin veneer of plausibility with which traditional notions of management and control are cloaked pretty much evaporates altogether. If the only way you know how to ‘direct’ and ‘control’ (ie to ‘manage’) is what we might call the 1.0 way, then the 2.0 invitation to play and see where you end up is going to come across as professionally and personally very confronting. And it’s not an unreasonable bet to suggest that many of those kinds of managers are in various levels of the public service here and around the world.

    The second dimension of the subversive potential of Web2.0 is closely related, and it concerns the need to invent new forms of accountability and new ways to make the playful serendipity, which we have to accept as a critical part of the way in which these new tools unlock value, more visible, transparent and accountable. The obvious question, of course, is how?

    Right now, I get the sense (and this is as much personal as it is a generalised reflection) that we are stuck in an unsettling twilight zone between the fading and generally unhelpful certainties of the 1.0 world – which were perhaps never quite as certain as they appeared – and the as yet pretty much unformed and very uncertain propositions about managing and being accountable that have yet to replace them.

    For government especially, with the added burden of political exposure and control freakery thrown in, the ability to move out of the twilight zone into something at least a shade more reliable and reassuring will be critical in determining whether and, if so, how the public sector adopts a relatively warm and robust embrace of the possibilities of this new connected, contingent and confusing world.

  2. 2010 January 2
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    Slightly tangential to the discussion, perhaps, but this TED talk by Daniel Pink caught my attention today (sent by a Cisco colleague)..

    It’s a very nice 15 minute exposition of the gap that exists – perhaps a widening gap – between the increasingly incontrovertible evidence of the power of intrinsic motivation and the stubborn refusal of most organisations to reflect that evidence in their wrong-headed and often damaging regimes of usually money-based extrinsic rewards.

    Pink’s passionate exhortation to the confected world of management to listen more closely to the evidence about motivation reminded me of Nicholas’ concerns about the misalignment between the fluid, contingent and serendipitous world of Web 2.0 and the rigid, linear and over-planned world of management 1.0 (evidenced in this case by the way we set about ’strategy’).

    • 2010 January 5
      Nicholas G permalink

      An interesting article Martin.

      It reminds me of a quote by David Snowden “Develop an agreed outcome, provide the tools and then trust that the outcome will be delivered”.

      This simple knowledge management approach is unfortunately quite different to the business process mapping approach used to try and develop an “innovative” environment and workforce. We (both public and private sector) get lost in the process and forget the outcome.

  3. 2010 January 2
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    Addendum – Pink notes that the best combination of attributes to create real motivation, especially for tasks that are not simple, linear or straightforward, is a dose of AMP – autonomy, mastery and purpose. People want some measure of control over their work; they seek to become better and steadily more competent at a skill or capability that matters; and they want to feel art of an endeavour that is bigger than they are.

    These are precisely the attributes at play in the stories Nicholas has highlighted and in much of what you read about why people become involved in, and find such satisfaction from, the social networking world of web 2.0

  4. 2010 January 8

    Hi Nicholas

    (Disclosure: I am the author of the Ariadne Article and sculpted the National Library of Wales’s Strategy).

    I agree with your points about how strategic writing can often be overly vague and, sometimes, even limit the potential of ‘thinking’ or ‘doing’ activities. Having said that, I think it is important to “understand what is achievable” or perhaps it would be better to say “not to misunderstand what is likely to be achieved”.

    Experimentation for its own sake can yield fantastic results, however it’s all to easy to gloss over the many many failed projects that lie forgotten along the way to a great social media success. Many organizations have projects which have been given specific mandates along the lines of “make our website more like Facebook”. These are unachievable aims for most projects, and being realistic when spending public money is surely important?

    I realise that this sentiment could be interpreted as “be innovative, but not too much” – but really it’s about playing the numbers – unachievable aims are far more likely to detract from a project than to push it to greater things.

    Now having said that, I totally agree with the points both you and other’s who’ve left comments have made about seeing the natural growth of an unforeseen potential in a Web 2.0 environment. Sometimes it’s too easy for organisations to be precious about their original aims and objectives.

    Great article – Paul

  5. 2010 January 8
    Nicholas Gruen permalink

    Thanks Paul,

    It’s always great when ‘the source’ turns up to a chat on a blog and so it is nice you’ve helped illustrate this on our blog!

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