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


What Strategists Can Learn from Sartre

As a philosophy, existentialism stresses that human beings have almost unlimited choice. The constraints we feel from authority, society, other people, morality, and God are powerful largely because we have internalized them — we carry the constraints around within us.

As a result, sometimes existentialists get a bad rap for preaching nihilism and meaninglessness — free fall instead of freedom. Everything is possible (they’re accused of preaching), and therefore human beings can ignore morality and duty. Thus, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. For Smerdyakov, the nihilist in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the death of God meant that mere anarchy was loosed upon the earth. But Nietzsche himself distinguished between a nihilism of strength and a nihilism of weakness. For the weak, the death of God means that all is permitted. For the strong, the death of God does not mean we are doomed to despair and meaninglessness. Instead, we have the opportunity to create our own lives and our own conscious sense of responsibility. Nietzsche said the only God he could worship would be a God who could dance.

This turns out to be very close to the role of managers, particularly senior executives, in large complex organizations. They don’t take on the role of God, but they do choose to define morality and its consequences for their organizations. In their classic management text In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (Harper & Row, 1982), Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. argued that the job of the manager is “meaning making.” This challenge to make meaning in an otherwise meaningless environment is itself made to order for the existential strategist.

How, then, does one “make meaning” for an entire organization — and ensure that the choices will turn out better than if that organization simply followed in old established pathways? The existential philosophers crafted some ideas that have fairly immediate relevance to strategic practice: finitude, being-toward-death, care, thrownness, and authenticity. (See “Five Principles of Existential Strategy,” below.) Let’s explore each and its application to existential strategy.

Five Principles of Existential Strategy

  1. Finitude. You can’t be all things to all people. If you’re not saying “no” to some possibilities, then you’re not acting strategically.
  2. Being-Toward-Death. No one is too big to fail, to die, to go bankrupt. Gliding on momentum can lead to
    a crash.
  3. Care. Define your interests more precisely than ROI or return to shareholders. If you don’t know where you stand, you’ll fall for anything.
  4. Thrownness. You have a past; you have experiences and core competencies. Know them, use them, and don’t forget them.
  5. Authenticity. Don’t be bound by your past. Feel free to reinvent yourself and your company for an uncertain future.

Finitude is the existential principle closest to the conventional notion of corporate strategy, making hard decisions because you can’t do everything.

Indeed, in this mortal life, you may be able to accomplish almost anything, but you cannot do everything. There isn’t time. If you choose to be a butcher, you generally can’t simultaneously be a baker and a candlestick maker. Understanding finitude helps the existential strategist focus on the trade-offs organizations face. You can go for lowest cost or highest quality, but rarely both at once. There are choices to be made. Not all good things go together. If you’re not saying no, you’re not doing strategy. If you’re not saying no, you’re not acting strategically.

The word decision derives from the Latin for “cut off.” IBM made a strategic decision to get out of the consumer business and concentrate on services to businesses. Hewlett-Packard Company cut Agilent Technologies Inc. adrift because measuring and testing technology was not its core competence. When corporate raiders make a hostile takeover and then break up a business and sell off its parts, their reasoning often has to do with an evaluation that shows the segments are worth more on their own than as parts of a confused whole in which executives prove unable to make tough decisions.

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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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