Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beyond the Jazz era - strategy choices for the 21st century

I love musical metaphors so Anthony Tjan's piece on 'Strategy as Jazz vs Symphony' in the Harvard Business Review really sparked my interest.

I think the analogies of jazz - a 20th century musical form - and the symphony - a form originating in the 18th century - work well to illuminate 20th century choices about business strategy. There used to be a relatively stable and predictable linear development path requiring different modes sequentially - small, flexible start-ups growing over time to become large, highly structured corporates. In the 21st century start-ups scale almost overnight and even behemoths of companies need to be fleet of foot and responsive. This requires constant re-invention at the same time as holding true to core principles - more like the successive turns of a kaleidoscope than a business life-cycle. In this new context, strategy choices are no longer either/or, but “both-and -and-and”.

So I wonder whether we need different metaphors for 21st century strategy and leadership choices. In some forms of historic and contemporary chamber music, the “leader” does both play and lead. In some 21st century orchestral pieces, orchestra members make their own choices about what and when to play, following a set of conditions specific to them and their instrument, but still performing as part of an ensemble to create each performance – with or without a conductor. These are still emergent forms and have no agree ‘name’. In the same way, we have as yet no agreed name for the strategic competencies of the future where the ability to straddle strategic modes is distributed at all levels of an organisation or network.

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