Strategy is the process of disciplining a set of disparate observations, principles, and thoughts, into a focus of prosecution called a ‘critical path’. It is a song which the heart already had written long before its lyrics were ever penned. Strategy is the ethic of changing the praxis of those wallowing or specializing in irrelevance.
The Technicals Do Not Make the Song
When producing music in my studio, I will typically spend maybe a half-hour to pen the song’s lyrics. Further then, developing the chord progressions, verse, chorus, and bridge might take another hour itself. I then perform these in my studio, recording through a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 input/output device which feeds through a set of patches into a Reaper digital audio workstation hosted on a specialized personal computer. Finally I will master the production through Celemony, Native Instruments, and iZotope plug-ins in order to craft, blend, and refine each of the tracks in the mix. Each of what are called tracks (a swim lane for a single instrument as shown in the image to the right), serves a specific value, purpose, effect, and timing – each of which contributes its part in the quality of the final production. The key is to have every track improve, rather than decompose, the quality of the song’s overall sound and delivery.
In contrast with the first three steps, this fourth step of engineering may take a couple days to complete. An irony resides in this process in that sometimes at its very end, I will compare the fully engineered song to its original raw recording, and my heart will prefer the original recording over the produced version. This can be frustrating at times. There is not a specific formula to success in mastering a song. Rather, a set of myriad potentially beneficial tools and techniques are brought to bear, which when applied in the right recipe, achieve the right delivery. But the reality is, the engineer only knows it when they hear it. Such is a serendipity of expertise, and not a procedure. Textbooks and heuristics can capture only so many of the technicals, but not the art itself. Aside from a couple standard tricks (reverb, ‘scooping the mids’, shelf, compression, panning, etc.) one just has to do this over and over on real songs, before one becomes actually proficient.
When I read how an analyst employed ‘game theory and alpha-beta investment formulas’ as their basis of ‘expertise’, or the scientific study of someone who at most knew how to assemble a confidence interval or p-value, I know I am observing a zero-experience hammer walking around viewing the world as a field full of nails.
The ocean is a thirsty desert, which bears the most clever and ironic of disguises. Do not be fooled.
If you have taken advanced graduate courses in hypothesis theory, game theory, confidence, and Markov chain Monte Carlo technique and then applied them in real world analytical situations, you become underwhelmed at the abject contrast between these tools’ intimidating academic miasma versus their true lack of effect in modeling reality. Every business bears an element of ‘fashion’. Let me say that again, every business, bears a principal human aspect inside its mission and delivery – the ‘song’. Reality therefore is ephemeral, and mocks the pretense of the perdocent.
Schools teach mere heuristic, and that is why they fail us. One can bully others with heuristic, one can show how smart they appear to be, and one can even create a dazzling final exam from heuristic. But one cannot describe what is indeed competence by means of heuristic alone.
As is most often the case, the heart has already written the song well before it was ever penned, much less performed. In actuality it might have taken a decade or more to write the song. Nonetheless, by the time one gets into the studio the heart already knows what it wants to hear. It is the job of the performer, producer, and engineer to conform the product to the heart’s vision in terms of words and sounds. Engineering after all, is where the heart’s yearning is satisfied with its reality. What can be sung in minutes, sometimes takes days to even get wrong. Sometimes, no engineering at all, is the right engineering.
[If I had sixty minutes to save the world] I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.~ Albert Einstein
Strategy itself, whether it be business, trade, operations, or even military strategy, is no different from this process of music production. The heart already possesses a picture of what it wants. It is the job of the strategist to develop the right sequence of problems, questions, and engineering from which a successful production can be conformed. Strategy is the process of disciplining a set of disparate observations, principles, and thoughts, into a focus of prosecution called a ‘critical path’. It is the song, which the heart had already written long before. As uncle Albert contended above, the solution is easy, once you know how to discipline and frame the critical path of questions. Such is the task of the strategist.
In order execute this process for business, one need undertake what is often comically framed in industry as ‘herding cats’. That is to say, bring a frothing mass of observations, ideas, goals, people, hierarchies, foibles, and factors into the unity characteristic of a symphony. The reality exists, that under a sound set of strategic goals, objectives, and milestones (the prosecution or critical path), all of this froth in disruptive influence will typically fade, and people will streamline into contribution inside an organization’s vision. What remains festering or unsolved after such a process, constitutes the real problems or challenges.
“But… but… but… I have this burning issue which needs to be addressed right now!”
“B… b… but, we have all this low-hanging fruit!”
“B… b… but, if we don’t lower costs next quarter, none of us will be around to do a strategy.”
“B… b… but, Dren Remmargorp, whom we hired right out of school, is the only person who can make changes to our systems. He developed all our functionality and doesn’t have time for this because he is swamped with tasks.”
“B… b… but, this is all just a temporary condition, until our ERP upgrade…”
The tyranny of the IT vendor, extraction crony, control-freak, rice-bowler, and urgent constitutes the chief obstacle to sound strategy. A team disheartened by the fact that the burning issues arise precisely because they do nothing but address burning issues in the first place.
It is wisdom to grasp that this paradox stand analogous to mankind’s very ontological state of being.
My task as lead strategist advising a corporation is to keep the team focused on the goals at hand, or the critical path of prosecution. If you want my team to conduct a strategy, don’t send us out looking for ‘low-hanging fruit’ – we will only solve for a more efficient version of the wrong answer. For instance, with one consumer goods company for whom I did strategy for over two decades, the task was to keep the team focused on strengthening brand, and improving margin alignment with value – and not the relevant-but-wallowing goals of ‘increasing revenue and reducing costs’ (Tier II competence in the ‘Hierarchy and Process to Strategy’ pyramid graphic below). I developed strategy and execution for this group from their days inside a truck garage, until they were one of the most powerful brands in the world. At one point in time, almost half of the industry verticals in the United States were led by companies for which my teams have done strategy. I know whereof I speak. I know how to spot pretense therein. I remain unimpressed with heuristics.
Any huckster can produce revenue and any monkey can be taught to reduce costs. If that is indeed the strategy, then don’t hire people like me. Simply hire a troop of hucksters and monkeys educated at Harvard to run the business. The increased earnings from ‘program savings’ and ‘best practices’ will allow another investment fund CEO to upgrade their yacht from 60 feet to 110 feet and make a magazine cover. The fruit of such work will be suicides and despair – and the purveyors of such goods will never come to realize this. But if your heart yearns for a more enlightened impact from business operations, then this ethic requires a sound strategy.
There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is always a hidden ‘me’. Any me will go through hell itself for you, as long as they comprehend what it is they need to do, along with the critical value they deliver – inside a meaningful purpose. They do not care about your magazine cover article.
Making cronies richer and socialist royalty more powerful – such things no longer serve as meaningful purpose for humanity.
Extended inference here again, bears ontological commentary on the coming age of mankind.
Collapsing the Tower of Babel
It takes an artist to re-adapt the vision of the organization into the reality of its song therefore. This involves a discipline of keeping people focused. In meetings, unless we are celebrating a recent success, I prefer to keep the team focused on the critical path at hand, the music, even to the point of posting something like the chart below on the conference room wall. I will keep a laser pointer or magnet affixed at the level of context in which the team is currently deliberating. Meetings which maintain these disciplines tend to be short, rewarding, and effective. If we have to dip into levels IV and III shown in Exhibit 1 below, those deliberations are done in breakout sessions.
The team must ask itself regularly, are we focusing on the ‘trivial’, ‘wallowing’ in tasks, or ‘non sequitur’ in our steps? Conversely, have we crafted the shining pathway of success (critical path) necessary in achieving our goals?
These are terms useful in helping the organization or executive group maintain focus on prosecution of the goal at hand – whether that goal be a military objective, value capture to margin/brand strength, or alleviation of suffering brought on by famine or disease. This hierarchy revolves around redevelopment of a principle in philosophy called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. I took this prior art and have developed it into my own series of laws regarding irrelevance and critical path (depicted in the chart below) – honed by experience inside over a hundred successful, real world, and top shelf business and national infrastructure strategy projects. I use these delineations to spot red herring, ignoratio elenchi, pseudo-theory, and other forms of purposeful misdirection.
Sorry Ludwig, it’s not merely language and nonsense, which serves peak ignorance – but rather irrelevance.
The key point to notice here, is that while Wittgenstein’s language focus is apt,1 it constitutes only one avenue through which deceit may enter (bottom of Exhibit 2 below). Irrelevance in contrast, offers four avenues through which the demons of confusion may establish foothold inside our discourse. Even bearing a common language, we all suffer from irrelevancy in terms of the trivial, the wallow in lack of process, along with the the salient but non-sequitur and non-critical path question.
Take it from someone who has done this over and over again. The establishment of organizational mission and discipline, based upon a critical path of logical calculus (Exhibits 1 and 2 hierarchies above), serves to inspire those in an organization – although most books on management will understandably not frame it in this type of philosophical language. Colleagues will sense that they are part of something greater, which they comprehend and believe in. They know why they are critical to its success. Paycheck becomes secondary.
The Ethical Skeptic’s Laws of Critical Path
Law of the Trivial – our tendency to devote disproportionate amounts of focus upon irrelevant matters, while leaving important matters unaddressed.
Law of Wallowing – our tendency to devote disproportionate amounts of time to the menial, while sacrificing important elements of process, or while serving no process at all.
Law of the Non-Sequitur – our habit of responding only to that which is immediately salient, while sacrificing or obfuscating the sequitur or broader issue at hand.
Law of the Non-Critical – our tendency to focus primarily upon cause-to-effect, however exercised inside a non-productive or dead-ended sequence of actions, or by no critical sequence whatsoever.
This article itself is a song, written by the heart through those many decades of trial and success. Its results are the tools which the ethical skeptic not only uses to keep his clients focused on their song, but to also detect the charlatans and ‘science enthusiasts’ who exploit obfuscation of this hierarchy’s principles as the playground of their awesome insistence.
The Ethical Skeptic, “The Strategic Mindset”; The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 27 Jan 2022; Web, https://theethicalskeptic.com/?p=61452
- The Ethical Skeptic, “Wittgenstein Error and Its Faithful Participants”; The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 15 Aug 2015; Web, https://theethicalskeptic.com/2015/08/15/wittgenstein-error-and-its-faithful-participants/