The Arachne Principle

Arachne, a deft weaver from Greco-Roman legend, claimed her skill was greater even than that of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war and weaving. The weaving contest between them to settle supremacy ended with Athena acknowledging the pre-eminence of Arachne's work. But envy at such expertise in a mortal led to fury. In Ovid's telling, Athena first struck Arachne, then transformed her into a spider.

For years I have felt that theories and models of strategic management are just too neat, rigid, static and dry. The few razor-sharp strategists I have ever known all had a profound respect for practice; for the years of hard-won, lived experience in the nitty-gritty of their fields. But they also had – and this is the clincher – an ability to abstract and relate that experience to a blend of analysis and a kind of philosophical wisdom (the more you see of peoples’ abilities, the more you realize that most of us are either gifted in getting things done, or, less commonly, with abstraction, but rarely both). In short, great strategic thinkers appear able to flexibly combine practice and theory. And if emphasis is placed anywhere, it is with hard-won practical experience. As someone once said, a good doctor knows the rules; a wise doctor knows the exceptions.

This presents a challenge. Our current theories and models of strategy take little account of ambiguity, anger, guile, luck, humor, courage, hope, dread or doubt. They do not pass so close to the tattered texture of daily experience. Strategy-in-the-wild weaves within that fabric. The recently-instituted research stream of “Strategy-as-Practice” delves into the workaday micropractices of strategic managers. But this approach brings it own pre-determined categories of analysis and the absence of any big picture of what is done, or not done.

It is perhaps for the worse that our theories enshrine ideas of distinct objects of analysis; barriers to market entry, firm resources, experience curves and the rest. Of course, distinct objects sustain all analysis (and all science). But most firms fail painfully and their managers struggle to explain why. Entire societies are described as being held back by cynical commercial interests. In truth, we strategize in a rugged, shadowy and treacherous terrain, surrounded by vast unexplored territories. Yet most of our strategy models presume smooth, well-lit geometrical surfaces. In decades of experience in business and research, I am yet to encounter a clearly defined market, technology or even profit-total. But perhaps the strongest indictment of our models of strategic management is how little they are ever used by practitioners.

If we are to satisfy our yearnings for theory, for foundations, there has to be a deep-seated shift. We want theory that captures the empirical facts of strategizing; what people do and how they work. And we would wish to preserve standards of virtue; ways to distinguish the reasoned and effective from the futile and stupid. In short, we need to pay respect to both the constitutive role that strategists play in making strategy, and also to the world out there – markets, technologies, regulations and the like – that means not all our theories are equally good. In philosophical terms, we need to drive a path between Realism and Constructionism.

An outline solution to this challenge is provided by Brian Cantwell Smith’s, “On the Origin of Objects”. Not a text in strategy, it relates metaphysics to strategy’s older cousin, intentionality (i.e. the property of being directed towards a subject). The picture Smith paints is philosophical, with most examples drawn from the world of computing. But it is relevant to strategy. The practice of strategy – like computing – is infinitely variable and so cannot be encompassed by theory. The best guide we could have to the ineffable richness of practice is the mind of the practitioner. Furthermore, practice does not pay respect to prior categorizations of what matters; practices, such as “strategy making”, rather emerge from evolving socio-pragmatic conventions. Abstract theory remains suspended in practice because what people do depends on their unique-and-ever-changing situation and traditions. Put directly, the practice of strategizing leads to the abstraction of things-that-matter at least as much as the other way around. It is our practices largely-determining what matters, what we see, what is meaningful.

On this view, the enmeshing web of practice offers a kind of “grounding” for theory. This is not grounding in the sense of a solid basement-level of explanation on which all else depends (Smith would foreswear the possibility of such a thing). Rather, it is a dynamic, partially-unstable and transitory basis, grounded only on the cognitive flux of strategists. For some thinkers, the best “strategy theory” we could hope for would be – or be dependent on - a theory of mind i.e. a way to attribute to others beliefs and intentions that are unobservable.

Paying respect to practice can fulfill our descriptive mandate for theory. But located practice gains effectiveness when blended with abstraction; with, perhaps, our theories of rational choice, differentiated market position, social power and the like. Theory offers perspective, useful distinctions, the ability to perceive fresh connections and interactions. Seen by these lights, the wise strategist is engaged in a perpetual loop of interacting models and experiences; partially unstable, yet steering a mid-course between parochial, located action and cosmopolitan, theoretical abstraction. With this in mind, I highlight four implications for handling theories and models of strategy and, therefore, for strategizing itself.

First, to “understand” a strategic context you have to be immersed in it; experiencing as incumbents do, extruding meaning from their socio-pragmatic processes, such that, to some extent, they become yours. To create strategy in any other way would be to risk missing the point entirely. This view can, for example, explain the poor outcomes associated with (highly detached) consultants or the untailored use of “models” of strategy, economics and the like.

Second, there is no solid foundation-level of theory on which to ground your strategizing. The fundamentals of economics, sociology, psychology, game theory, decision theory and any other supposed foundation can only be of partial assistance. Life – and strategy - is not neatly sliced into theory-shaped experiences. What help theory offers depends on blending the clarity of theoretical withdrawal with the meaningfulness of situated practice. Effectiveness, on this view, is partial connection (immersion in practice) and partial disconnection (engagement with theory).

Third, the commitment to theorizing is endless in the sense that categories of analysis and their relationships are perpetually contestable; open to re-thinking and re-discovery. It is not that radical change is endless; periods of relative stability might exist. The point is that the context is truculent, with the potential to break any analytical cage with which you try to hold it. Competitors become collaborators or customers or both. Exciting new technologies become straight-jackets and old products become re-fashionable. Profits become losses under new accounting policies. A glitteringly successful strategy is disastrous when re-applied. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, so the complex contexts on which all strategy depends appear once. Effort is needed to extrude meaning from the flex and slop of context. This is a big part of the strategic task.

Fourth, whatever theory or models you use, you must “fess-up” and pay a kind of theory-importation tax. Where did the model come from, how did you get it here, and what is the cost of using it? Neo-liberal economic theory developed in the US, for example, had dubious value when translated to a destabilized Argentine economy in the crisis of 1999-2001. The injection of pristine theory into the blood and bones of practice can cause great harm, as Argentineans attest.

In sum, strategy starts with doing; with immersion in the gritty workaday business of the organization. Lived experience provides meaning and effective strategy works in the grain of that shifting context. Theory, meanwhile, offers new perspectives and a kind of worthy withdrawal. Working in the “middle-ground” – blending theory and practice – gives you the best chance of virtuously-directed effectiveness; of being strategic.

What does all this mean for our ambitions to become better strategists? It points to the virtues of experience and, therefore, of age. Immersion in practice, soaking-up context, building hard-won experience, takes time and that takes patience. Strategy teams with a few grey heads will, on this view, work better.

Arachne was, in legend, at fault for not admitting that some of her knowledge flowed from the gods. She was punished. But in challenging the goddess Athena, Arachne showed the supremacy of her own craft. The Gods of Strategy are the creators of hugely influential theories and models, studied by millions of earnest, aspiring strategists. We can (and should) learn from theory. But, in strategizing, the gods and their ideas can and should be challenged. Craft, practice and experience are the wiser guides; this is The Arachne Principle. No theory offers fully-formed solutions for strategy. At worst, theory does violence to practice. At best, it offers sharper questions.

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