The author is a founder of the strategy and consulting firm associated with the well-known research center The Santa Fe Institute (for a description of its work on complexity see Waldrop: Complexity). The book is therefore framed within an explanation of the implications of complexity theory for non-human and human systems. The book starts with a brief overview of the development of scientific thought, emergence of the theory of ‘complex adaptive systems and its application to business. The overview includes a useful explanation of the important distinction between non human and human (purposive) system and the implications for a view of business based on complexity. Businesses, at least those that offer a physical product, necessarily contain both kinds of system, as well as containing both linear and complex systems, and strategy has to recognize this explicitly.
The author then discusses the implications of this fact for the structure and strategy processes of a business, including the distinction between what he calls ‘doing’ or ‘instrumental’ processes and ‘knowing’ or ‘strategic’ processes, which must be harmonized continuously and adaptively to produce strategies. He argues that strategic processes are concerned with principles and models, while instrumental processes are concerned with rules and behaviors, all of which interact.
From this starting point, the balance of the book is concerned with explaining, developing and applying (through examples) a structure of diagnostics – essentially strategic questions – that a business needs to work through in order to develop strategies and strategic processes that not only meet current competitive needs, but adapt to unpredictably changing circumstances and take advantages of opportunities arising from reconceptualising the business within a clear understanding of business purpose.
If you are familiar with any of the business literature that rests on systems thinking, complexity or the primacy of knowledge management in contemporary strategy, do not expect to find dramatically new ideas in this book. It is a well structured presentation of reasonably familiar precepts, laced with relevant examples and good common sense advice on some of the balances required and the pitfalls to be avoided. The questions proposed as diagnostics appear to be thorough and comprehensive, although I would have preferred to see a more user-friendly form of presentation than the largely narrative style that is used.
As ever, the step from knowing what ought to be done and why it is being done to successful implementation is a large one, and the author does not go in any depth into the human issues of bringing plans to fruition. He does however stress the importance of clear purpose, shared understanding and a culture that encourages learning and draws forth the creativity of all participants within the business and across the stakeholder chain.