Strategy as active waiting

Donald Sull writes in  the current Harvard Business Review:

Active waiting begins with the acknowledgement that managers cannot predict or control how the future will  unfold.  Based on this recognition, they avoid marching headlong toward a well-defined future and instead articulate a fuzzy vision, which describes a company’s domain, geographic scope, and aspiration in broad terms:  "We aspire to global leadership (or excellence or quality) in our industry," for example.  A fuzzy vision works because it provides general direction and sets aspirations without prematurely locking the company into a specific course of action.

The article’s main focus is on companies in particularly volatile markets, especially developing countries, so application closer to home needs to be handled with some care, but there are some challenging passages:

Rather than hiring consultants or convening off-site meetings to wordsmith the perfect long-term vision, managers in unpredictable markets should concentrate on getting the short- and  medium-term priorities right.  A small set of clear operating, financial, or market priorities can align the organization.  As IBM’s incoming CEO, Lou Gerstner refused to provide a long-term vision which would bind the company to specific targets such as revenue goals.  Instead, he articulated five clear priorities – including restoring the company to profitability and attacking the client/server market – to focus the organization on the specific opportunities and threats Big Blue faced at that time.  Shifting circumstances informed the priorities, which then guided action.

And

Managers can follow two broad principles when conducting reconnaissance into the future.  First "recon pull" trumps "headquarters push."  That is, managers closest to the facts on the ground should act on the basis of first-hand data about the shifting situation rather than relying on a preconceived plan from headquarters.

While nicely provocative, the latter paragraph does need to be qualified by the fact that the example given to illustrate the point is of a Taiwanese company trying to make a breakthrough into the Chines shrimp-flavoured instant noodle market, which turns out to be rather more ambitious (in the sense of this argument) than anything we have in mind.