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Strategy Without Purpose Will Always Fail

2022 October 23
by Greg Satell

In 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in the journal The National Interest titled The End of History, which led to a bestselling book. Many took his argument to mean that, with the defeat of communism, US-style liberal democracy had emerged as the only viable way of organizing a society.

He was misunderstood. His actual argument was far more nuanced and insightful. After explaining the arguments of philosophers like Hegel and Kojeve, Fukuyama pointed out that even if we had reached an endpoint in the debate about ideologies, there would still be conflict because of people’s need to express their identity.

We usually think of strategy as a rational, analytic activity, with teams of MBA’s poring over spreadsheets or generals standing before maps. Yet if we fail to take into account human agency and dignity, we’re missing the boat. Strategy without purpose is doomed to fail, however clever the calculations. Leaders need to take note of that basic reality.

Taking Stock Of The Halo Effect

Business case studies are written by experienced professionals who are trained to analyze past situations from multiple perspectives. However, their ability to do that successfully is greatly limited by the fact that they already know the outcome of the situation they are studying. That can’t help but to color their analysis.

In The Halo Effect, Phil Rosenzweig explains how those perceptions can color conclusions. He points to the networking company Cisco during the dotcom boom. When it was flying high, it was said to have an unparalleled culture with people that worked long hours but loved every minute of it. When the market tanked, however, all of the sudden its culture came to be seen as “cocksure” and “naive.”

It is hard to see how a company’s culture could change so drastically in such a short amount of time, with no significant change in leadership. More likely, seeing Cisco’s success, analysts looked at particular qualities in a positive light. However, when things began to go the other way, those same qualities were perceived as negative.

When an organization is doing well, we may find its people to be “idealistic” and “values driven,” but when things go sour, those same traits come to be seen as “impractical” and “arrogant.” Given the same set of facts, we can—and often do—come to very different conclusions when our perception of the outcomes changes.

In most cases, analysts don’t have a stake in the outcome. From their point of view, they probably see themselves as objectively analyzing facts and following them to their most logical outcomes. Yet when the purpose for writing an analysis changes from telling a success story to lamenting a cautionary tale, their perception of events tends to change markedly.

Reassessing The Value Chain

For decades, the dominant view of business strategy was based on Michael Porter’s ideas about competitive advantage. In essence, he argued that the key to long-term success was to dominate the value chain by maximizing bargaining power among suppliers, customers, new market entrants and substitute goods.

Yet as AnnaLee Saxenian explained in Regional Advantage, around the same time that Porter’s ideas were ascending among CEOs in the establishment industries on the east coast, a very different way of doing business was gaining steam in Silicon Valley. The firms there saw themselves not as isolated fiefdoms, but as part of a larger ecosystem.

The two models are built on very different assumptions. The Porter model sees the world as made up of transactions. Optimize your strategy to create efficiencies, derive the maximum value out of every transaction and you will build a sustainable competitive advantage. The Silicon Valley model, however, saw the world as made up of connections and optimized their strategies to widen and deepen linkages.

Microsoft is one great example of this shift. When Linux first rose to prominence, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called it a cancer. Yet more recently, its current CEO announced that the company loves Linux. That didn’t happen out of any sort of newfound benevolence, but because it recognized that it couldn’t continue to shut itself out and still be able to compete.

When you see the world as the “sum of all efficiencies,” the optimal strategy is to dominate. However, if you see the world as made up of the “sum of all connections,” the optimal strategy is to attract. You need to be careful to be seen as purposeful rather than predatory.

The Naïveté Of The “Realists”

Since at least the times of Richelieu, foreign policy theorists have been enthralled by the concept of Realpolitik, the notion that world affairs are governed by interests, not ideological, moral or ethical considerations. Much like with Porter’s “competitive advantage,” strategy is treated as a series of transactions rather than relationships.

Rational calculation of interests is one of those ideas that seems pragmatic on the surface, but is actually hopelessly academic and unworkable in the real world. How do you identify the “interests” you are supposed to be basing your decisions on if not by considering what you value? And how do you assess your values without taking into account your beliefs, morals and ethics?

To understand how such “realism” goes awry, consider the prominent political scientist John Mearsheimer. In March, he gave an interview to The New Yorker in which he argued that, by failing to recognize Russia’s role and interests as a great power, the US had erred greatly in its support of Ukraine.

Yet it is clear now that the Russians were the ones who erred. First, they failed to recognize that the world would see their purpose as immoral. Second, they failed to recognize how their aggression would empower Ukraine’s sense of nationhood. Third, they did not see how Europe would come to regard economic ties with Russia to be against their interests.

Nothing you can derive from military or economic statistics will give you insight into human agency. Excel sheets may not be motivated by purpose, but people are.

Strategy Is Not A Game Of Chess

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who researches decision making, became intrigued when one of his patients, a highly intelligent and professionally successful man named  “Elliot,” suffered from a brain lesion that impaired his ability to experience emotion. It soon became clear that Elliot was unable to make decisions..

Elliot’s prefrontal cortex, which governs the executive function, was fully intact. His memory and ability to understand events were normal as well. He was, essentially, a completely rational being with normal cognitive function, but no emotions. The problem was that although Elliot could understand all the factors that would go into making a decision, he could not weigh them. Without emotions, all options were all essentially the same.

In the real world, strategy is not a game of chess, in which we move inert pieces around a board. While we can make rational assessments about various courses of action, ultimately people have to care about the outcome. For a strategy to be meaningful, it needs to speak to people’s values, hopes, dreams and ambitions.

A leader’s role cannot be merely to plan and direct action, but must be to inspire and empower belief in a common endeavor. That’s what widens and deepens the meaningful connections that can enable genuine transformation.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Alejandro Segura permalink
    October 23, 2022

    Greg, this is probably one of your most insightful articles.It is clear that there are two essential factors that should always be taken into account in the business and political fields: ie. identity and how emotion plays a key role in the equation. Thanks for keeping us alert. Saludos

  2. Theresa Quintanilla permalink
    October 24, 2022

    I wish someone would explain this to Mark Zuckerberg. He’s become such a wrecking ball.

  3. October 24, 2022


    He has been a disappointment!

    I think in that case, he does have a purpose (or at least he did). He seemed to profoundly believe in connecting the world, but didn’t understand all of its implications.

    – Greg

  4. October 24, 2022

    Thanks so much for your support Alejandro!

    – Greg

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