The strategy conversation you can only have here

Insiders and outsiders


So right up front I need to declare my bias. Some of my work entails working with executive teams to figure out better strategies for their future. I have a vested interest in, and believe it makes sense to involve outsiders when wanting to think about the future in a different way.

On Friday Clem Sunter and I were chatting after his annual guest lecture to our Strategic Thinking students. We exchanged stories about how so often our clients work backwards from their expected outcome. Limiting themselves to what they believe is possible, they then describe their future. While tweaks are often considered, it takes great courage to turn hours of interesting talk into an implemented strategy that changes course for the better.

Scenario planning provides a rich vantage point from which to look at the future, especially when change is required. This is what is exciting about the work Clem and I do. The real power of scenarios is however when they cause a stirring of emotions that compel people to think and act in a better way. We agreed that a rational argument alone is not good enough to cause change to happen.

While many of us consider ourselves to be rational, a quick glance through the hundreds of biases that are affecting us all the time, should raise some doubt as to how rational we really are. Our emotions play a much bigger role in our decision making than we would like to think.

This is why a group of business people on a particular mission benefit from having an outsider in their midst. The outsider can do many things they cannot. One of these is to question the very assumptions on which their business future is built. We are often emotionally attached to our existing ideas and only an outsider can cause us to feel uncomfortable enough to think differently.

This is hard for insiders to do themselves. Here are three reasons why.

  1. Often it is the leaders vision that is being followed. As Daniel Kahneman describes in his interview with Charlie Rose (see video below or follow this link ), leaders like the idea of rationality but resist implementing it. None of us like our views scrutinised and this is even more so if we have climbed to the highest levels in an organisation.

  2. Insiders are also vested in the activities that have built their business thus far. 'That's not the way we do it around here', is cliched but we hear it often in various guises when asking about alternative futures that haven't as yet been considered.

  3. The third reason is that there is an element of risk in doing things differently. Sometimes to keep going with what we know, even though we are aware of the flaws, is easier than venturing out into a new area. Comfort zone or sunk cost bias perhaps?

Outsiders can help identify a new direction and new ways of implementing. Even though the really hard work of moving in that direction is left to the insiders, without identifying what is possible, we are more likely to remain with the known.

To break out of the tried and tested we need to ask outsiders into our inner circles.