Clem Sunter

Walk like an Egyptian, think like a fox

2011-02-16 13:01

If anything has shown the limitations of being a superpower today, it is the events that have unfolded in Egypt. Sure, Mubarak has been replaced by a new Armed Forces Supreme Council and that council is aware of the $873m annual aid package the Egyptian military gets from the US. It would suggest that Obama still has strings to pull in the transition process.

However, as Obama himself has said, the people of Egypt have spoken and will settle for nothing less than genuine democracy. Genuine democracy means genuine elections with genuine choices between different political parties. It certainly means no orchestration by an external power to achieve an election result which is favourable to the interests of the external power. Indeed the more that people perceive any form of orchestration, the more likely they are to vote for parties clearly not aligned to the interfering agent or agents. Imagine how Americans would feel if they discovered that the policies of either major political party were being tailored to the wishes of another nation. They would scream about it and rightly so.

Yet all the planning models taught in the MBA programmes at America’s leading business schools still assume a level of control over the future that simply no longer exists. Chantell Ilbury and I call it the hedgehog concept - and indeed so does Jim Collins who actively promotes the idea in his highly influential book Good to Great. Essentially, if you come up with a plausible vision and you focus on it to the exclusion of virtually everything else, you will make it happen.

Our starting point is that much of the future is beyond your control and uncertain enough to be unpredictable. By all means have a vision and support it with objectives, key performance indicators and all the other accessories developed since Peter Drucker wrote his ground-breaking Management by Objectives. But, for heaven’s sake, do not bet the shop on the future unfolding in the way you want it to unfold. Play other futures as well, prepare the best options for them and constantly keep an eye out for the flags. Then, like a fox, adapt your strategy for whatever the future throws at you - decisively and quickly and as soon as the flags go up.

Why is Egypt such a good example for contrasting our technique to the orthodoxies offered at American business schools (and European ones)? Because I would defy anyone to come up with a firm prediction of where Egypt is going to be in one year’s time, let alone five years. Nobody knows; so you can only play scenarios, identify the flags for each scenario, consider the probabilities based on the disposition of the flags and then decide what you are going to do - proactively and reactively - in a continuous state of adjustment. Optimisation of strategy is incremental.

What America, and for that matter other Western powers, cannot do is construct their own vision for Egypt and in a blinkered way pursue it at all costs. It will not work: just like it has not really worked in Iraq and is currently not working in Afghanistan. You have to be flexible when you no longer have the power to impose your own will. Otherwise, the law of unintended consequences kicks in and you end up with a worse outcome.

Ultimately, in this new world of social networks empowering people to do their own thing, Egyptians will walk the path that they choose to walk. Every outsider needs to be flexible and adapt like a fox. Maybe even the Ivy League will understand this one day and teach that foxes are as indispensible to good strategic thinking as hedgehogs. Here’s hoping! As the democratic revolution spreads across North Africa and the Middle East, Americans will have to learn to let go and prepare themselves for a variety of outcomes like good foxes do. They should resist the urge to be meddling hedgehogs.

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