Standing at the helm of their organisation, CEOs make the major decisions to steer the business in the direction of their strategic intent. These strategic decisions are by their nature complex, uncertain and for the long-term, placing great demands on the capacity of the human mind to make judgments about the future. While CEOs can improve their chances of success by avoiding many of the common traps in decision making, the possibility always remains that their intended strategy may not produce the intended results.
The unpredictability of strategy’s outcomes
The linkages between strategy and the actual outcome are weakened by three key factors: persistent macro level uncertainty, the vagaries of the market’s response and the blind spots of the decision maker.
At the macro level, we now live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. A term that came into popular use after the 9/11 attacks but one that became more common in the business world after the sub-prime crisis of 2008. As our assumptions about the external environment have become more vulnerable to sudden, massive and unpredictable change, even the best-prepared strategies require fast adaptation to emerging realities.
At the industry-level, decision-makers must also take into account the unpredictable responses of customers and competitors to their strategies. The customer response to a new product or service may often be very different to how a business envisages it at the time of strategy development.
Take for example the Tata Nano car. While the vehicle represented an incredible feat of engineering to be produced at less than $2,000, it failed to connect with its target Indian customers, who found that its positioning as a ‘cheap car’ fell short of their rising aspirations.
In a similar vein, the response of competitors to a strategic move can be equally unpredictable, sometimes requiring rapid changes in direction by a company in order to retain their edge.
Lastly, as human beings, we develop mental models to make sense of the environment around us. These mental models help us in familiar circumstances by speeding up our response, but they can constrain our thinking when we deal with novel situations.