Monday, September 17, 2018

Big Data – Caveat Emptor

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Let the buyer beware…

Don’t want to be misunderstood folks. Big Data is, in my view, one of the essential technologies.

Big Data, and its partner technology, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Augmented Reality, Drones, 3-D Printing, Internet of Things, and Blockchain are transforming our lives – mostly for the better.

But we need to know where each technology applies, and where it does not.

Aristotle defined two domains: the domain of things that cannot be otherwise, and that of things than can be otherwise.

The former comprises things like matter, physics and chemistry. Water is water and cannot be otherwise. It evaporates when heated and freezes when cooled.

You can predict how it will behave by applying the laws of science. Big Data works well here.

The latter domain, that of things than can be otherwise, comprises fickle things like economics, politics, fashion, public opinion, and behavior.

Big Data does not work so well here. (A deep bow here to the great Roger Martin, former dean of the University of Toronto’s business school.)

Can we expect Big Data to effectively answer questions of design, marketing, opinion and behavior? Can we outsource our thinking about strategy to Big Data?

These are all the purview of creativity, intuition, imagination – which are our forte.

Gary Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player ever, emphasizes the importance of ‘fantasy’ in chess, arguably our greatest strategy game and business metaphor.

This is the same man who played the super-computer, Big Blue, to a draw, an encounter the New York Times likened to ‘Man vs Forklift’.

(Big Blue, let it emphasized, was programmed by the world’s top grandmasters, and rebooted before each game, so that Kasparov was, in effect, facing a new super-computer opponent.)

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s – let’s use Big Data where it works best, and recognize its limitations.

For example, don’t expect Big Data analytics to give you the ‘super-nova” moment, the blinding strategic insight that illuminates the path forward.

In my view, the centaur concept provides the proper metaphor and way forward.

Like the half human-half horse of mythology, the intelligent human being working with, and guiding, well-designed AI, has the potential to blend the best of both worlds, machine and human.

I like the thought of my doctor working with AI and Big Data.

The next Kasparov or Kasparova may well have Big Data and AI riding shotgun.

Best regards,


Monday, September 3, 2018

There is No Right Answer in Strategy

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Building on my last blog, the strategy is not about perfection. In fact, there is no right strategy.

This is often difficult for senior leaders to accept because it runs contrary to their experience.

Senior leaders are usually the smartest kids in the class, the ones who always have the right answer.

They naturally enjoy the glow of being ‘right’ (synonymous with being ‘smart’). This pattern deepens as they embark on their chosen professions.

Again, they are the smartest people in the room, the ones with the answers, who confidently define what we need to do next.

Such confidence is an important element of leadership. Indeed, good leaders exude a feeling of ‘we will succeed beyond any possibility of doubt.’

Such confidence allows people to relax and get on with the job.

And so, most senior leaders have been conditioned to want to be ‘right’. But, as I said, there is no right strategy.

The past is not the future, and no amount of analysis and reflection will predict the myriad permutations the business chessboard will express.

Some people conclude therefore, that there is no point to developing strategy, that it’s best to ‘just react’ to what happens.

[For strategy geeks, in my opinion, doing so entails misunderstanding the great Henry Mintzberg’s ‘emergent strategy’ concept.]

Yes, it’s true that nowadays it seems there are ‘Black Swans’ everywhere. So why bother with strategy at all?

Twas ever thus – and forever will be. You want to see Black Swans? Check out Ken Burns splendid Vietnam documentary – the episodes that focus on 1968.

There is no right strategy – but there is a right process. By reflecting deeply on what’s happened, on where we want to go, and on what’s preventing us, we better understand the chessboard, the terrain, the pieces, competitors, and our capabilities.

If our strategic planning and deployment process is simple, waste- and hassle-free, we begin the understand the important gaps in technology, customer experience, culture, capability and management systems.

And we take action, we strengthen our weak points, we plug the gaps, we prepare.

In effect, we are projecting our nervous system in to the future, so that when and if the Black Swan appears, we’re not paralyzed. We’re alert, focused and confident. “Folks, this isn’t anything that hasn’t happened before…”

Sound strategic planning, therefore, builds fortitude and tenacity. This is most obvious in sports, where Black Swans are not uncommon. Nobody can predict which way the ball will bounce, or what the score is after the first ten minutes.

But is you have a clear plan and a good understanding of the terrain, competition, your capabilities and have worked on your gaps, you’re much more likely to recover from whatever fate throws your way.

Our articulated Purpose and strategy, therefore, should be clear and simple, as should our strategic planning process.

Nimbleness is of the essence. We should be able to quickly align and deploy, and just as quickly realign and redeploy.

Modular plans, visual management, stand-up meetings, brevity, a shared simple problem solving method are important elements of agility. (How does all this fit together? My books are essentially movies about it, pardon the plug.)

Corporate planning in many large organizations is, sadly, the opposite of nimble. The following adjectives come to mind: ponderous, heavy, boring, wasteful, difficult, confusing…

By adhering to a heavy, formal annual planning process, we are, in effect, projecting our punches. A droll competitor might wait till we publish our strategy, and then the day after, change theirs…

There is no right answer in strategy, but there is a right process.

Best wishes,


Monday, August 20, 2018

Complexity is a Crude State, Simplicity Marks the End of a Process of Refinement

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

This one’s like gravity – not just a good idea, it’s the law

It’s my privilege to help leaders develop strategies for complex organizations.

A recurrent refrain is ‘our business strategy is too complicated to explain simply.’ If so, do we really understand our strategy?

Don’t want to be misunderstood. I am all for deep dives into complexity armed with the latest analytical methods.

Doing so helps us understand our key gaps with respect to technology, customer experience, capability, culture and management systems.

With one proviso: we come out of the deep dive with 1) a clear purpose/destination, and 2) clear logic as to how we’re going to get there.

By clear logic, I mean something like: ‘To achieve our aspiration, the following things have to be true: 1) ..., 2) ..., 3) …..’

(Here’s another caveat: if our business strategy is truly too complicated to explain simply, maybe we’re too big… But that’s another blog.)

Simplicity reflects refinement in many other endeavors besides strategy. The great masters in art and music tend to refine, condense, concentrate, and consolidate as they develop.

Picasso famously evoked the figure of a massive bull with a single line. Count Basie’s piano solos are famous for their brevity, often no more than a few notes.

Ditto B.B. King, whose blues guitar solos are so ‘simple’ that ‘anybody’ can play them. (Guitarists can attest to how hard it is to play so ‘simply.)

Why then do we like complexity in strategy?

To a great degree, that’s how we’ve been trained. Business schools love complex analytical tools and equally complex case studies. You can fill a semester nicely thereby.

And students, usually perfectionist & driven (like yours truly), gobble them up. “I know something now!”

As I said, that’s all fine, provided we come out the other side with clarity & simplicity.

Another reason is that complexity in strategy can reduce accountability, and therefore individual risk. It’s hard to be wrong if nobody understands what you’re proposing.

There is no objective test. By contrast, defining a clear Purpose, and the logic as to how we’ll get there is testable, and therefore puts you on the spot.

Therein lies another important misunderstanding. We’ve been taught, wrongly, that the purpose of strategy is to be ‘right’.

And that’s wrong – and the topic of our next blog.

Best regards,