Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Any Old Map Will Do

Byron Farwell wrote about the Gurkhas, a people from Nepal who famously served with the British army during the 19th and 20th centuries. One account by Farwell, in his book The Gurkhas, is particularly instructive:

"Havildar Manbahadur Rai of the 1st Battalion, 7th Gurkha Regiment escaped from a Japanese prison camp and walked 600 miles in five months to return to British lines, navigating with a map he had purchased from a British soldier before his capture. (The British officers he showed it to upon his arrival were dumbfounded: it was a street map of London.)"

London? I don't have a copy of the map, but here is a typical map of central London:

Now to one who does not read English, the intricacies of the City might be imagined to be pathways, gullies, roads, hills, or any other form of terrain. So it is perhaps understandable that Rai mistakenly saw the map as a useful tool thousands of miles from London. What leaves us dumbfounded is that the map proved to be useful, despite being absolutely wrong. The lesson seems to be that, as the social psychologist Karl Weick often said, "Any old map will do."

The story Weick typically used to support his claim - a different story - was factually incorrect. It turned out that Weick's story was drawn from fiction mistaken as fact, and this error was not revealed until others did some research. Yet people love repeating the idea, regardless of its factual basis. (It was on my porch, telling Weick's unfounded story to Don Green - a well-read guy I know - that I learned of the apparently correct Gurkha story.)

In any case, people are often intrigued by the idea that any guidance - even incorrect guidance - is better than no guidance at all; at least if the lost person thinks the guidance is correct.

Among academics, we've had a lot of fun with this idea. Sociologists like to point to it as an example of what Robert K. Merton called the "self fulfilling prophecy." To social psychologists, especially Shelley Taylor and and her followers, the wrong map story would be seen as a the upside of a "positive illusion."

But the real punch from the map story is felt by business leaders.

One of the major concerns among business leaders is that they must resolutely declare their strategy, even though they know that they may be wrong. In fact, in rapidly changing industries one's strategy is almost sure to be incorrect, since circumstances will change so fast. Yet the leader must point forward and declare with certainty that they know the way. If you can do this, your people will follow with vigor - hopefully self-fulfilling vigor.

For instance, it is instructive to compare the intended strategies of Apple under Steve Jobs to what really happened during the company's spectacular rise after the year 2000:

January 2001,  iTunes: No music store; just a "jukebox" alongside iMovie and other software meant to make the Apple desktop computer more competitive vs. the PC.

October 2001, iPod: Still no music store; meant to help the iTunes/iMac strategy.

April 2003, iTunes store: Triggers success as a music company.

October 2003, iTunes for Windows: Hell freezes over. Strategic change away from reinforcing the Apple computer to being the world's music company (regardless of what computer you use).

2003-2007, explosive growth as a music company, culminating in the company dropping "Computer" from its name.

January 2007, iPhone announced: No app store; just a phone+iPod+browser as a response to music-playing cellphones.

July 2008, iPhone app store: Triggers explosion of app generation and revenue, redefines strategy again.

Reviewing these events, note that at each point in time, an event guided by a strategy triggers changes that render the strategy outdated. Leadership at Apple did not "plan and execute" a stable strategy. Rather, leadership allowed the strategy to evolve as it recognized the emerging possibilities enabled by their actions, regardless of what they had intended. As Jobs put it in an address at Stanford in 2005:

"You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path; and that will make all the difference.”

The lesson: The more that you find yourself in changing circumstances, the more that your strategy serves not to guide you down a known route, but to trigger your discovery of routes unknown.

For academic research on the discovery process, see my book on Red Queen Competition