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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


What Strategists Can Learn from Sartre

In such tradition-bound societies, the elders know best because they know the past. Filial piety is a core value of Confucianism. Sons follow the occupations of their fathers. Tradition rules. The past rules the present. Like the pattern of the seasons or the constellations in the heavens, the basic order of the universe is not subject to biological evolution or historical change.

This sense of time and order remained sacrosanct until the works of Georg Hegel and Charles Darwin gained influence. These two writers, though very different from each other, together were the most significant sources of existential thought; only when their work was accepted was essentialism’s repetitive and cyclical image of time displaced by a linear, historical, evolutionary time that allowed for the emergence of something genuinely new under the sun.

Suddenly, humanity had a future — in the sense in which existentialists think of the future, as an open-ended, indeterminate field of untried possibilities. For existentialists, existence precedes essence. It’s not that no one or nothing has an essence. It’s just that essence, for free human beings, anyway, is achieved rather than prescribed. You become the results of the decisions you make. You don’t find yourself, as those suffering “identity crises” try to do. You make yourself by making decisions. You’re not just the result of the genes you inherited or the circumstances of your birth. Of course genes and family background make a difference, but what you choose to do with them is subject to existential freedom.

Consider the way that time is measured, and the way we normally experience it. Ever since the invention of the mechanical clock, people have conceived of time as passing in the kind of even blocks represented on Cartesian graph paper. For rocket scientists plotting a trajectory to the moon, this model of time might be the most appropriate. But as both Heidegger and Sartre noted, this kind of mathematized, regular tick, tick, tick of a mechanical clock contradicts the experience of a truly human temporality. Our minds experience time as expanding and contracting, quickening with excitement, slowing with boredom. There is a lived contrast between long durations and punctuating epiphanies. Things last a while, then they change, and there are significant choices to be made at the cusps and bifurcations.

Moments of Urgency
Such punctuations call for strategies developed prior to the moment of urgency. And as the world gets more strange, these moments will be more frequent. Scenario planning gives executives a way to rehearse different futures in the relative calm of a meeting room rather than in a “war room” set up for emergencies. Better to craft a strategy during the calm between the cusps. Once you’ve rehearsed different futures in the form of vivid scenarios, then you’re ready for the one that rolls out in fact. And even better: Once you’ve scoped out a range of alternative futures, you’re in a better position to nudge reality in a direction you’d prefer. (See “How Scenario Planning Explains Uncertainty,” at the end of this article.)

A future filled with new possibilities presents a backdrop for planning that is very different from a future that is a reshuffling of the same old same old. Reshufflings should follow laws that allow for prediction according to rules that cover every possibility. A future filled with genuinely new possibilities might not even be describable using categories and metrics that cover what has occurred before. How could a 19th-century scientist anticipate, much less predict, prime time, venture capital, gigabits-per-second, butterfly ballots, fuel cells, genetic engineering, cellular telephony, and so on?

Once you appreciate this fundamental shift in the nature of “futurity,” you are in a better position to appreciate the need for existential strategy. Once you abandon an essentialism within which the future is, in principle, predictable, and adopt an existentialism within which the future is, in principle, unpredictable, you’re bound to need a robust set of guidelines for making decisions that will be effective in any of a range of futures that might unfold.

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  1. Stuart Crainer, “The Days of Futurists Past,” s+b, Third Quarter 2000; Click here.
  2. David K. Hurst, “Learning from the Links: What Systems Thinking Teaches about Golf and Management,” s+b, Fourth Quarter 2000; Click here.
  3. Art Kleiner, “The Man Who Saw the Future,” s+b, Spring 2003; Click here.
  4. Randall Rothenberg, “Arie de Geus: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Second Quarter 2001; Click here.
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