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


What Strategists Can Learn from Sartre

Heidegger focused on care as a feature that differentiates human beings from purely cognitive, Cartesian creatures. Sure, we think, we calculate, we cogitate. But we do so in a way that is different from how computers do it. My computer doesn’t give a damn. It doesn’t care. And so much the better: It is unbiased; it is unswayed by desire; it can do the wholly rational, objective calculations I want from a computer. I, on the other hand, have biases. I have desires. And so much the better again: for my desiring, my caring, gives meaning to my life. A knife is good for cutting. A computer is good for calculating. Each has a function. What am I good for? If the meaning of my life can be reduced to the kind of function that defines the essence of a knife or a computer, then my life is reduced to that of a functionary. I become a tool in someone else’s drama, a mere means to their ends, not my own.

Often organizations, especially large, long-standing ones, need a greater sense of urgency. It’s not just a matter of giving a damn about reducing time to market for new products. Sometimes a corporation must reinvent itself. Sometimes a company must break free of its past. Once upon a time Motorola made car radios. When Robert Galvin wanted to manufacture semiconductors, some of his managers thought he was nuts. But Bob Galvin, son of Motorola founder Paul Galvin, cared enough to keep his father’s legacy alive even after the car radio business declined. Later they reinvented Motorola yet again as a manufacturer of cell phones and pagers. With Bob’s son Chris retiring as chairman and CEO, the company is set to reinvent itself once again. In a world that’s gone from slow and predictable to fast and perplexing, you have to be free to reinvent yourself … or you die.

Of course you can’t reinvent yourself as anything whatsoever. Companies have histories. IBM doesn’t sell dog food. Sara Lee isn’t set up to manufacture computers. Heidegger called this nondeterministic conditioning Geworfenheit, or thrownness. We each landed on the earth somewhere, not nowhere. We each inherit much of who we are from our parents, our culture, or the community in which we find ourselves. Even the entrepreneur finds the second year of her new company “thrown” in a certain direction by her first year. Right-angle turns are tough. Momentum has its merits. But even for the largest corporations, straight-line extrapolation from the past into the future is a poor guide for strategic planning.

Thrownness is not just a constraint. Upside possibilities beckon the existential strategist. Aspirational scenarios showing rewarding opportunities can complement descriptive scenarios painting risks. When executives at Motorola sought our help to update their China strategy, we realized they’d been coasting on momentum. A hard look at both downside and upside scenarios led them to boost their investment, claim greater market share, and solidify their leadership position. The sheer size of the opportunities that exist in China are enough to dwarf the imaginations of planners coasting on extrapolations from the past. It takes a dancing existentialist to see such vast possibilities.

Authenticity is a way of being true to yourself, but the concept is tricky because, for the existentialist, being true to yourself can’t be defined as being true to your essence. Nor can it be reduced to fulfilling a function. Authenticity demands fidelity to your past, but also openness to possibilities in the future — not just one possibility (that would be a necessity), but several possibilities. Authenticity is being true to both your thrownness and your freedom. It’s making choices among possibilities and taking responsibility for your 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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