Strategy and surfing the wave of serendipity
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.