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  • Writer's pictureDom Castley

How the wrong map can still get you home

Updated: Dec 23, 2018


This post explores strategy in turbulent environments where so often leaders are in charge, but not in control. And it starts with a good war story about a map.

During WW1 a group of Hungarian troops led by a young lieutenant were on a scouting expedition in the Alps. After several days of heavy snow the soldiers lost their way and had given up all hope of returning home.

They were ready to die in the blizzard, then a stroke of luck; a young soldier found a map showing the way back. They took heart and their first steps on a dangerous march back to their comrades. But when the young lieutenant reported the tale to his commander and proudly presented the life-saving map, it turned out to be a map of the Pyrenees, not the Alps.


VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. This was the environment the soldiers were battling against. The acronym was originally coined during the Cold War and is now often used to describe the disruptive change caused by digital transformation.

Some leaders, however, still believe in a rational world where trends are clear and predictable. Their memories are stronger than their vision, and tend to see only things only relevant to their view of the future. They believe they must make all the key decisions. Their assumptions are not challenged, one course of action receives complete focus; timelines are short and aligned with their tenure. In too many C-suites, strategy is neatly separated from the messy world of implementation – and of learning.

But like the lieutenant in the snowstorm, how much control do business leaders really have? A HBR study showed that the firms delivered on average 63% of their forecasts, with complex plans and myriad KPIs conveniently obscuring if the culprit was a poor strategy, sloppy execution – or both. So much for control.

But although leaders control far less than they think, they actually influence more than they realise. They should seek to create a balanced atmosphere of doubt and hope that avoids absolute self confidence and questions capabilities and assumptions – while at the same time giving people the belief that problems can be solved. This will help create the conditions for success without the hubris of guaranteeing things beyond their control.

When economist John Maynard Keynes was called a flip-flopper, he said “when the facts change, I change my mind. And you sir?”.

Business leaders are well advised to follow his lead, especially in times of VUCA. They should be less reliant on existing formal structures and codified plans that only work in stable, predictable environments. And when the inevitable shocks do hit, leaders should turn to skills, not their gut feelings, ego or insulated inner team.


As the uncertainty of VUCA brings multiple futures into play, strategies should therefore also be multiple. Scenario planning can help identify a core strategy, as well as 2-3 parallel provisional strategies that can be activated if conditions change, or opportunities arise.

Strategy should also be a  dynamic verb as well as a noun. Instead of “setting a strategy” (like "setting concrete”), leaders should be continually “strategising” (observing, experimenting and sense-making) to allow it to emerge in response to new environmental conditions. To do otherwise is to complacently assume a prescient leadership and a static environment.


Some believe competitive advantage comes from positioning the firm favourably within its industry and having a P&L with higher prices or lower costs, relative to the competition. Others look to capture competitive advantage by deploying rare and hard to copy bundles of tangible and intangible assets. These are sometimes called “first order” capabilities.

There is another view that competitive advantage is instead delivered via "second order" capabilities that enable rapid adaption. These invisible assets are a complex web of skills, interlinked routines and technologies that accumulate the organisation’s collective learning. When routines come into contact with new situations, small changes occur and chain reactions are set in motion. They get stronger as they are applied and shared, and provide stability in volatile environments like a gyroscope. A little like the lieutenant making every use of his intuitions, his soldier’s half remembered landmarks, and topographical patterns from other mountain ranges.


The point here is that the map (substitute plan, strategy et al) did not need to be right in order to work. In times of extreme uncertainty, any map will do. It provides a starting point, a direction for first steps, and importantly a piece of hard, credible information to instill confidence. Would the young lieutenant's soldiers have followed him if he just said “well, I think its this way…”.

The interesting question for me is not the way the troops navigated over a frozen mountain, but how they navigated between a map and a reality that after a while must have obviously been diverging. The physical map remained important as it was where all the other cognitive “maps" came from.

The troops must have been initially seeing what they expected to see, and were mentally linking the landscape as closely as possible to the contours on the map. But as the differences built up, they must have paid more attention to their environment, their intuitions, and to each other, than the map. That is strategy as process, and we should not hesitate to challenge the map before us.

The troops found their way back. Perhaps not in a straight line, but they made it. And in today’s digital-driven VUCA snowstorms, that’s what matters.

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