Beki Grinter

Strategy and Vision

In academia, academic management on June 1, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Two words I hear often are strategy and vision.

I’ve always had a bit of a love hate relationship with strategy and vision. Why?

When I worked at one of my industrial research jobs I like to think of my time spent 50/50, it probably wasn’t, but I like to think of it that way. 50% of my time focused on getting those all important papers published, 50% of my time focused on doing research-oriented service to the company. It was the latter in which I encountered strategy.

I most typically encountered strategy as I was attempting to help people recover from strategy. Strategies frequently involved the implementation of new modes of thinking.  Business Process Reegineering, Six Sigma, etc… and perhaps people think of these as tactical, but I think of them largely as strategic. There isn’t enough “there” there for them to qualify as how to do it (IMO, and heck this is a blog), so they must be strategic (there’s far more why you should do it.  The books (and others like them) I’ve read contain a lot more on about what will be realised when one “crosses the chasm”, or discovers which of Pasteur’s Quadrants one is in, but nothing about how to operationalise this over a business that has 1000s of employees. And that’s key, how do you operationalise any strategy over 10s, 100s, and 1000s of people.

I spent some time helping people and projects and software artifacts recover from strategy deployed without any thought to tactics, or at least no discernible to me thought to tactics. It was always painful and confusing, except for when it was very painful and confusing. In fact, for me, lesson one of consulting (debugging a situation) is to try and identify when it went wrong and what particular strategy was being proposed at the time and whether there’s any link.  It’s a form of detective work, and it isn’t always the case that some new idea about strategy was to blame, but surprisingly it was frequent enough that it was a good heuristic for getting to the bottom of a problematic situation. Also one that makes it less about a particular person and more about a particular approach.

But I also get that strategy forces choice. I just tend to think that strategy is greatly helped by never being allowed to be unaccompanied by process. The why should always be accompanied by the how. Strategy should be chaperoned by tactics.

So perhaps in time I won’t wince whenever I hear the word strategy. But, I think will always be searching for the tactics. Call it Pavlovian. I call it sensible.

Vision. This is another tricky beast. Good leaders do vision. Vision is really hard, well I think so. I should qualify this by saying that I think that I am a type of researcher who is completely instinctual. I think that many of my colleagues, much to their credit and my eternal envy have a vision about entering a domain, and possibly a strategy and then some tactics for pursuing results in that area. I tend to be led by problems that peek my interest. This may come from something I find, or more recently from the interesting opportunities that my students create, but it’s always just a sense that there’s something interesting there, something that is far more complicated than it seems on first blush. I’ve been lucky, a career on instinct is a tricky beast, but instinct and vision to me seem like opposites.

So, for me, vision requires being able to see a future, something that we should aspire too. I work in Computer Science, and the vision that most frequently comes to mind for me is that Computing will be everywhere (which demands an assessment of where it is not — as I write this connected to my wireless network — although I could connect to my neighbours — from my deck of my house after spending a day reading and contributing some writing cycles to papers by my students about ICT use in Brazil and low-income Altanta, well it gets harder to imagine where Computing isn’t…) and that its expansion is going to force innovations a significant way down in the computer stack. Well I tried to write about this somewhere else, and apparently my vision isn’t very visionary (ha ha ha, I fear that’s another in-joke).

But in my defence, let me just say, visions can be risky. I remember the Information Superhighway. At the time, my experience was equivalent to cycling on an Interstate (I was using a new Mac laptop PB 100). And what precisely did it mean for Information to coarse along a superhighway. Information is not actually about the size of the pipe, it’s about the ability to process it (I have felt for a long time that what is limiting me is not the size of the pipe that brings me my email, or the time it takes Google Scholar to find me 8 bazillion references, but the time it takes me to a) read and b) think and c) possibly write about any and all of these things. Back to Visions, the Next Generation Internet looked surprisingly like applications built on the First Generation Internet. I have a bookmark from the Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest continuously publishing press, advertising their participation in the next Internet development, their  Gopher site. The future of Computing is unpredictable, but visions are not exactly about unpredictable (unless you call it disruptive of course).

Of course, visions don’t have to stand the test of time, they have to amass people around them. I might suggest that this is tricky when you are talking about Ph.D.’s who after all are trained to be critical-analytic. So, I turn to Max Weber. I think that a good vision might be part of his definition of a charismatic leader. People believe, they are excited and encouraged.

But, I also think that there’s nothing like instinct and a “just do it” attitude to help during the times when vision seems light on the ground. Push back new frontiers. Mix the disciplines. Interdisciplinarity begins at home, I have personally enjoyed working with Software Engineers, Security, Networking and Robotics researchers… what can HCI help with. And that way vision I feel comes with a series of operational steps, some “to-do’s” which at least for me seem to be where the rubber meets the road.

And if you (for those of you who) knew me, you’d perhaps find that surprising. I do. Perhaps that’s a reason to have a blog.

  1. Vision is what you have while you’re waiting for a good idea to come along.

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