Strategy as 5As

One of my favourite board games is Azul. It is simple enough that a 7 year old can play and beat an adult, in part because the scoring works such that it’s hard to predict how scores will change after each round. In the game, each round requires the players to make choices with the view of maximising scores. So I may have a strategy how to structure my scoring to maximum effect and it helps if I am paying attention to what other players are doing.

However, as the number of players reaches the four it becomes hard to pay attention to all players’ boards as I run into information overload. Most of the time the players have multiple options of ‘resources’, but paying attention helps me anticipate which ones others might go for and what the implications of that could be for me. So if I may have more than one option, it helps if I have fall back strategies.

Similarly, every strategy (looking into the future rather than the past) is an aspiration. Aspiration of what we hope to achieve and how. This aspiration is often driven by some form of analysis of various factors and events. We are taught in business schools to use PESTEL, SWOT, 5 Forces, etc to analyse the external environment and that, in some shape or form, is expected to inform our strategic intentions. But analysis itself does not generate a strategy, it simply – hopefully – creates a better awareness of what is happening outside our organisations.

In using frameworks, we commonly create lists of factors and events based on what we know, perceive and understand. In effect, those tools are there to enhance our awareness and shape our aspiration(s). But among those factors and events, we might choose to pay attention to a few things more than others because they may have a disproportionate impact on whether we can achieve our aspirations. They also might be changing more quickly. This raises questions such as what is it that we should be paying attention to the most? And what do they mean for our business?

Our analysis is always retrospective as we can’t peak into the future. But what our analysis reveals may prompt us to anticipate how those few important factors and events may unfold and what impact they might have. It is likely that in most cases we can’t do much to control those circumstances, but it might help us to consider how we respond and what our fall back strategies might be.

When I am driving a car through a school area and I am anticipating that a child might cross the road, I am preparing myself by slowing down and ready to break. This awareness of not only the external factors, but also how some of them may impact we are trying to do if things change can help us to be more adaptive. It can be harder, or at least slower, to adapt if we had not anticipated something.

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