Can Strategy Be Beautiful?
It is time to re-think — and re-feel — the king’s discipline of business.
by Tim Leberecht
If I’m honest, I make most decisions with my gut, and then I come up with a strategy to post-rationalize them. So I can wholeheartedly relate to what the entrepreneur and writer Luke Burgis says: “Show me your strategy, and I show you your desire.”
Burgis is the author of the upcoming book Wanting that explores how the concept of “mimetic desire” applies to business. Mimetic desire suggests that humans are imitative beings and essentially desire what they see other people desire. If true, this would explain a lot: from the rise of Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks, to the power of Elon Musk (case in point: a new app, Elon Stocks, that alerts you every time Musk tweets about a company’s stock).
Burgis joined me, along with other guests, this past week in our weekly Beautiful Business Live room on Clubhouse to discuss “Strategy, Magic, and Desire.” The premise of the conversation — and the entire Strategy Week hosted by my company, the House of Beautiful Business — was that strategy is not the merely rational, cold-calculating, or Machiavellian king’s discipline of business (which is also often heavily gendered and used to exclude others from power — “strategists” are rewarded with a seat at the table, while tacticians, implementers, and “feelers” remain on the sidelines), but a complex and emotionally loaded concept that means much more than simply anticipating and planning for the move beyond the next move.
“Your strategy can never be bigger than your desire.”
Indeed, strategy is where intellect meets soul, external meets internal world, and for Burgis, the hierarchy is evident: “Your strategy can never be bigger than your desire.”
The future will be first and foremost the one that we want.
It’s refreshing to look at strategy in these new terms, especially if your mission is to make business more beautiful. Strategy is to business what New York is to cities. If you can make it (beautiful) there, you can make it (beautiful) anywhere.
This explains the vibrant and rich conversation we had in our “What’s Your Strategy?” Living Room Session on Thursday with Bosch VP of corporate marketing, Boris Dolkhani; digital anthropologist and bestselling author Rahaf Harfoush; and BCG Henderson Institute chairman, Martin Reeves, who discussed whether strategy can be beautiful.
The answer is possibly threefold: For one, there is the formal delight of a grand strategic plan, the elegance of a string of actions that match intention with outcome. In addition, and perhaps more crucially, strategy is the expression of an aspiration, an explicit “Why,” a manifest manifesto. And finally, strategy is a moving target; it remains forever unfinished, like a conversation. Conversations, too, ebb and flow, and they end, but they are never complete.
As Harfoush suggested, this is what Clubhouse, the social audio sensation, may help business leaders realize: strategy is not something you plot, it is something you do. It requires deep listening and the occasional dead air. In many ways, the conversation about the conversation is the conversation, very much like it is in romantic relationships. In these new Clubhouse days of digital-social everything, the motto goes: Got strategy? Don’t put it on the board, bring it into the room!
“How can you not be a beautiful business?”
In a similar vein, Barbara Martin Coppola, chief digital officer of IKEA (Ingka group), whom I interviewed for the Living Room Session, heralded adaptability as the key competence of any company today, but emphasized that this capacity requires a strong “north star.” In other words: To act swiftly, play the long game.
In IKEA’s case, the North Star shines bright and clearly: the company is committed to finding the right balance between human-centric design and planetary wellbeing. “The question is no longer whether you should be a beautiful business. The question is: How can you not be a beautiful business?” Martin Coppola told me.
Her colleague, Ingka Group CEO Jesper Brodin, just announced the hiring of IKEA’s first “chief play officer:” Toby Watts, age five, has assumed the responsibility of testing IKEA’s toys throughout the year. Moreover, IKEA is planning to design all its products in line with circular principles and using renewable and recycled materials, as well as reduce the climate footprint of its wares by an average of 70 percent per product by 2030. IKEA’s recent efforts at co-creation of accessible products, with an eye toward improving life for people with “different kinds of functional needs — from children to the elderly and everyone in-between” — also epitomize the company’s values.
How does a humanist brand like IKEA use AI and XR without compromising its values-driven approach? How does it play by the digital rules of convenience and optimization without diminishing its quirkiness and delight? And what does it mean to be a beautiful business online? These are all questions I asked Martin Coppola.
Love and mathematics
Luke Burgis of course would argue that desire comes even before the Why, and he would find a supporter in Jonathan Rowson, the philosopher and co-founder of the research firm Perspectiva that examines the links between “system, souls, and society.” “How did the soul get into this equation?” I asked him, and he replied: “The question is rather: how could it get out of there in the first place?” Rowson insists that if we want to build a new world, we must start inside ourselves. Interiority is the key to any effective strategy — and social change.
Rowson is also the author of The Moves That Matter, a three-time British chess national Chess champion, and a chess grandmaster. Citing the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s definition of God — “love and mathematics” — Rowson told me in our conversation that he really enjoyed watching the Netflix blockbuster The Queen’s Gambit because it perfectly exhibited the beauty of chess. He said:
“There’s the geometric delights of chess the beauty inside the game, the intellectual beauty; and then there’s the beauty of the underlying mathematical form. (….) And I think it’s this interplay of inner and outer beauty that most human beings intuit as something really important. (…) The pieces do speak to you, even if you don’t necessarily understand what it is what they’re saying.
And further: “We hear a lot about ethics, but a bit less about aesthetics. I think there’s something about orienting life towards the beautiful.”
Seize the power of the non-powerful
After our Living Room Session, Diogo Teixeira, director at the Portuguese real-estate development firm Essentia, sent me an email. He wrote:
“Every crisis needs a strategic response, but to make the change happen one needs to reach the tactical level: how can we seize the power of the non-powerful?”
This really stuck with me. Yes, we need a strong desire, a bright North Star, a detailed plan, and the courage to adapt, but ultimately, to make business more beautiful, we need to seize the power of the non-powerful.
This article originally appeared on the Journal of Beautiful Business.