Janus Strategy

An auto-antonym is a word that has at least 2 meanings that mean the opposite of each other. For example, one definition of “sanction” is to disallow. But another is to bless. Words with this property are sometimes called Janus words.

Janus was the Roman God of beginnings, endings, transitions, and doorways. And because of that, he also presided over the onsets and ends of conflicts, and therefore, wars and peace. Usually, he is depicted as having 2 faces or heads –which is how he comes to be the namesake of Janus words. Get it? Two faces, two opposite meanings!

Strategy Gods

I have been thinking lately that Janus ought to be the official God of Strategy!

Why? Because strategy is fundamentally paradoxical. It is future- facing–a plan for how to make something happen in the future; something that is unlikely, difficult, and uncertain.

But, as forward looking as strategy must be, it should also take account of the past, rest upon existing capacities or account for deficiencies from the past.

A great strategist must, like Janus, think with two heads—one facing forward and one backward. 

When the Past Holds Back Strategy

Strategy that rests entirely on either the past, or a small, incremental improvement from the past, leads to stale and lethargic progress. Without both a future-based goal and a plan crafted from that goal, the “strategy” ultimately is little more than continuation of last year or last decade. Routine.

Being past-based is common. As human beings, we live in a present that is largely indistinguishable from the most recent past. Today is very similar to yesterday. Yes, I’m a day older –but I can’t see or feel the aging that took place over that 24 hours. Nor can I see the progress I made toward my own goals.

The same is true in most organizations. Mired as human leaders are in their day-to-day experience and activities, they too end up operating while referencing their actions against the past. They feel like they’re in the present and working toward something in the future. But they’re mistaken.

We mark progress by measuring improvement. That’s true of businesses, individuals, parents, and the stock market.

However, improvement is explicitly about the pastnot about the future. We measure and reference today’s results in contrast to yesterday’s or last year’s –and that tethers us to the past rather than the future.

We are largely distracted from the whole phenomenon for which strategy exists.
The future.

Past-Based Planning Distortion

Goals often take the form of “increase revenue x% over last year”. They look backwards.  A goal like that has no obvious relationship to any future vision or possibility. In fact, it is strategically arbitrary.

The other problem when you base your strategic goals on the past, is that you fail to anticipate threats –large and small. For example, everyone knows the old buggy whip story. When cars were nascent, buggy whip makers became less relevant, and eventually obsolete.

A future-facing strategy might have saved a few. But since the sales of buggy whips had remained roughly static as cars entered the market, the contrast from past to present was unremarkable. The buggy whip barons were looking in the wrong direction. Backwards.

The same was true of Blockbuster, who failed to acquire Netflix for $50 million when given the chance in the year 2000. They were looking at their current performance and believed that the trend was still in favor of their continued dominance. Since Netflix’ growth hadn’t yet eroded Blockbuster’s market share it wasn’t obvious that it ultimately would do so –and do so at an existential level. That is, it wasn’t obvious from blockbuster’s past-facing data.

There was more than enough evidence of how Netflix would grow. Even at the time, analysts were predicting the trend away from in-store rental—and already anticipating the ways that the Internet would affect at-home viewing. One only had to observe Netflix’ growth and do the tiniest bit of extrapolation.

At that time, Netflix already had 200 million subscribers. The market was shouting:  Deliver video to us!  But that wasn’t enough to jolt Blockbuster into a future-facing perspective.

The Future Blinds

With all that said, there are also significant problems with looking only to the future.

Of course, a future-facing vision is critical. Without an unlikely or difficult goal strategy has no purpose. The point is to conquer our hardest challenges and accomplish unprecedented results.

But, when the only thing informing a strategist is that future vision, they can become blinded to reality. Strategy must be tied to the real world—to the constraints of time, money, and physics, to the vagaries of human behavior, world events, technological progress, and marketplace dynamics.

Even geniuses like Elon Musk have failed to stay sufficiently connected to the past when crafting plans.

Solutions that Don’t Solve the Right Problem

Hyperloop transit originally sounded amazing—except, that when one actually dug into the realities of its capacity limits, regulatory hurdles, inevitable price and cost, and perhaps most bizarrely –the fact that humans can only tolerate it if it never rounds a curve— it doesn’t work.

Its biggest “win” so far is the Las Vegas Loop Station from which you can travel across two streets. Or you can walk it on the surface in 7 minutes.

Maybe it will move some cargo in those cities that already invested. But, in the meantime, both Virgin Hyperloop and the Boring Company are treading water. Yet, the future was so blinding that a marketplace desperate for transit options threw money, approvals and PR at those promising it. Amazingly, the Boring Company still has a valuation of $5.7b. But there are no active projects that will lead to mass transit.

Most of the problems were foreseeable.  Had Musk and his followers looked critically at what mass transit requires, the cost and logistics of constructing a massive network of underground tunnels and the physics of hyperloop travel for humans—they would have recognized that it was a mismatch. But multiple cities began digging tunnels and planning stations before anyone did the actual analysis.

They were blinded by the future and floating free of the past.
Being mesmerized by the future leads to unrealistic plans and unhinged promises. But, being connected to the future allows for richer strategies.

Future as Tracking Beam

Consider what Netflix’ two central insights about the future ultimately allowed:
Netflix was born when Internet access was first sold at a fixed cost. Until then, consumers paid by time. That made it an impractical commercial medium. But, with flat fees, everyone could surf the web at will. Netflix saw that accessibility and married it to their knowledge that people are inherently lazy. They launched a rental platform that delivered DVDs by post.

But, that same insight was also behind their futuristic streaming concept. Although they couldn’t deliver streaming videos yet, by extrapolating from the current progress at the time they could anticipate that eventuality. Even in the year 2000, the Netflix streaming future was already pulling their strategy forward like a tracking beam.

Yet as bright as the future seemed, Netflix remained connected to the past. They got their first major funding based on what they could already demonstrably execute: DVDs by mail. But the magnitude of the funding, and their subsequent exponential growth was driven by the compelling future they could imagine and demonstrate was likely to be possible.

Blockbuster had access to all the same information. They just failed to look forward and consider possible scenarios in which the current reality evolved. Their lack of an extra head that looks forward left them behind.

Janus Looks Forward and Back

When we craft strategy, we must embrace our internal Janus! We have analytic tools to measure, describe and utilize the knowledge we have about our past performance, and our present conditions and capacities. Those are essential.
But building strategies that do little more than continue a current trend is a waste of time.

If things are going fine, nothing has changed, and your goal is in sight, you don’t need a strategy.

But, if there are challenges, obstacles, difficult conditions then you need a strategy.

Or, if you have a hard goal, a big vision, or you want to craft a new category or unprecedented technology—you need a strategy.

But the challenges of the present moment will not be enough to generate a breakthrough strategy. You MUST look forward and back.

Looking forward is a multi-factor activity. Your extraordinary vision or the hard goal lives in the future. So do new conditions, hard challenges, unexpected obstacles, technological changes, and insurgent competitors.

The past doesn’t disappear though. Failing to take stock and account for limitations in capacity, expertise, physical facts or geopolitical conditions is as deadly as having no strategy at all.

When you embrace your inner Janus you never lose sight of either temporality. You are looking forward and backwards and incorporating both views into your strategy and into how you adjust to fulfill it every day.

When you embrace your inner Janus you never lose sight of either temporality. You are looking forward and backwards and incorporating both views into your strategy and into how you adjust to fulfill it every day.

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