Gonzo Strategy: Traditional Winning vs. Subjective Immersion

Strategy is often practiced with a bias toward frameworks and the assumption that the goal is accepted & well-known. Frameworks are the dogma of high-end consulting firms while the “obvious goal” is a tool worshiped by Milton Friedman-style executives and election-mode politicians. Both heuristics assume that the world is static in one or more ways. By relying on frameworks, one imagines that social physics (economics, business, org theory, etc.) can ignore friction while denying the possibility of fundamental relativism in some or all variables. Frameworks feed the assumption that there is an obvious goal: Porter’s 5 Forces suggests the goal of industry domination, SWOT analyses suggest that winning means being the strongest player with the best opportunities and safety from external forces.

What does a strategist do when the goal is unclear, traditional winning is impossible or undesirable, or the variables feeding a framework are irrelevant? Enter a time of fundamentally relativistic frameworks and the possibility that maximizing value and winning are false gods. Not only are industries unbounded and fluid in competitive markets (making the 5 forces rather less useful), but creating the maximum shareholder value or winning an election may work against goals that have grown harder to clearly measure (and may need to be changed).

If a harmonious society is the goal, is it better to have one party sweep the other and leave part of the country feeling underrepresented? Is harmony worth other compromises that might be required (equality, prosperity, safety)? When the goal, the tactics, and the relevant questions become vague and potentially unknowable, society quickly reverts to that seductive master: narrative. Sir Lawrence Friedman ended his useful book, Strategy: A History, by suggesting that narrative was the newest frontier in strategy. I’d like to suggest that while narrative may be effective as a tool to manipulate or achieve goals, it would be useful to examine whether narrative as a means doesn’t take us away from our true ends as a civilization. If self-determination and individuality are important, what happens to those ends when the keys to countries and companies are held by the number one manipulators, even if they’re narrating to get us to goals we agree with?

The answer is not a complete one, but I think it’s a place to start. When deeply held core values start to come into question, we have to dig deeper than is typically comfortable. Instead of being satisfied with the question, “how can my organization succeed?”, we must ask “why do we organize?”, “what is the purpose of prosperity?”, and “how does a value exchange between two individuals happen in a freely chosen, mutually comprehensible way?” These deeper questions may lead to doubt about the morality of some narration, the legitimacy of some frameworks, and the definition (or usefulness) of winning.

The strategist must decide whose side he or she is on. Is allegiance to an identity? To a philosophy? To a group or individual leader? Or to oneself? Or perhaps sides are being washed away as well, but I submit that strategy requires the taking of a perspective. To merely describe the world without taking a stance is, to Hunter S. Thompson’s point, probably impossible. Perhaps Gonzo Journalism’s inheritance will go to Gonzo Strategy; it would at least be more fun than BCG matrices and opinion polling.