Imagine that there was a commonly-held theory of gravity that said objects will fall at an increasing rate, pause halfway, do a little spin, and then continue to fall. Imagine, then, that you never actually observe any object falling in that particular way. A little like that, sure…the falling part. But not exactly like that, and certainly never with that suggested little pause and spin.
Imagine, then, that you asked smart people about this lack of observed evidence, wondering whether the theory might need a revision that matched observations, and they replied: “Well, things SHOULD fall like that. And if they knew better, they would.”
There is a theory much like this, frequently referenced and often espoused, called ‘strategy’. And while there are many special theories of strategy that seem to track with observed evidence, the general theory does not, at all, ever. The general theory says that organizations achieve objectives by defining a clear and measurable goal, considering the range of possible actions toward that goal, implementing the actions that seem most likely to move them forward, and then measuring their progress and adjusting as they go. The General Theory of Strategy is mostly linear, mostly intentional, and mostly about alignment of resources, actions, and desired outcomes.
Problem is, no collective human endeavor ever happens like that. A little like that, sure…the considering and moving and choosing part. But not exactly like that, and certainly never with that suggested clarity and intent. And I don’t just mean it never happens in the nonprofit arts. I mean it never happens, anywhere, ever.
Consider the odds against it:
- A clear and measurable goal: When have you, as an individual, ever been able to define a perfectly clear and measurable goal? For every action on this earth, you have complex, overlapping, and internally inconsistent goals – some explicit, some implicit, some physical, some emotional, some social. (Should I walk to the water fountain to get a drink? I’m thirsty, yes, but I might run into Bob.) Now, magnify that complexity by the power of two for two people, three for three people, and on and on. We can certainly agree on an explicit, aggregated, or average goal that seems to align with most of our individual and collective goals, but at best it’s a fuzzy estimate, and it’s dripping with “let’s pretend.”
- Considering the range of possible actions: When have you, in your life, been able to identify, assess, and understand the consequences of all available actions? You can be aware of many possible actions, particularly the ones you’ve tried before. But you can’t possibly know their extended outcomes. And if you could know, you would have the previous problem of overlapping and inconsistent goals making a clear comparison between actions impossible.
As Herbert Simon stated the problem with classical decision theory back in 1979 (“Rational Decision Making in Business Organizations,” American Economic Review, vol. 69, no. 4, 1979):
The classical model calls for knowledge of all the alternatives that are open to choice. It calls for complete knowledge of, or ability to compute, the consequences that will follow on each of the alternatives. It calls for certainty in the decision maker’s present and future evaluation of these consequences. It calls for the ability to compare consequences, no matter how diverse and heterogeneous, in terms of some consistent measure of utility.
And that’s just two elements of the General Theory of Strategy. The rest are worse.
Of course! I hear you say. Nobody REALLY thinks strategy is a rigid and real thing. It’s an aspiration. A guideline for good behavior that nobody ever actually achieves. A “true north” that guides our way in a murky dark (strategy conversations always eventually lead to a compass metaphor, usually because strategy inevitably feels like the uncharted wild).
But in the rooms I sit, with funders, board members, academics (yes, I do this myself), consultants, boards, and other boosters of cultural organizations, the General Theory of Strategy is a real and resident thing. Heads are shaken in disdain as we hear and share stories of non-strategy, of messy, confused, staggering, iterative, conflicted processes by arts organizations, so distant from the clear and obvious General Theory of Strategy. These organizations and their occupants don’t move the way they SHOULD move, the way they WOULD move if they only knew better.
Often, a business-savvy board member or foundation executive will encourage us to look to the corporate world, where the General Theory of Strategy is both proof and pudding. But even there, we find complex human interactions and imperfections mucking up the beautiful linear. Or, as Henry Mintzberg noticed when he actually observed corporate process (“The Structures of ‘Unstructured’ Decision Processes,” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1976):
…the choices are made by people who often do not fully comprehend the proposals presented to them. Thus, in authorization the comparative ignorance of the manager is coupled with the inherent bias of the sponsor.
So, no. I’m not suggesting we abandon intent, goal-setting, option-seeking, evaluation, and adjustment in our work. I’m not even suggesting we give up on the word ‘strategy’ as a placeholder for this kind of intentional and pseudo-rational approach. I’m just suggesting that we acknowledge that any and all human processes are sloppy and slippery and riddled with impossible odds, and perhaps be kinder and calmer with others and ourselves about them.
Let’s not push and stress so hard on what SHOULD happen in the pursuit of collective effort. Let’s stop and observe, with compassion, what DOES happen, and consider how it might happen better.