Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

Why strategy should always be child’s play

Our guest author explores how adopting a child-like mindset can influence strategic thinking.

There are some typical associations around strategic thinking. Most of them involve stern women and men sitting around tables, sporting expressions somber enough to curdle milk. There seems no hint, not even a rumor of a smile, which hangs over the room, as they debate and discuss. It’s small wonder that so much which emerges from such sessions lacks a spark. It seems dull and uninspired. This is because strategic thinking always seems to invoke solemnity.

Perhaps to find cerebral ignition, it is imperative to take oneself a lot less seriously. Become more childlike in thinking and behavior. This, being the week India celebrates Children’s Day, it might be worthwhile to examine how turning back the clock on one’s perspective, can actually take things forward in a more emphatic fashion. For, to paraphrase William Wordsworth, the child might truly be the father of man, when it comes to strategic thinking. Here’s a few behaviors we all might do well to embrace, to rekindle the wonder of those playground years.

Ask the silly question

Strategic forums usually have bunches of intelligent people gathered. These could even be likened to ‘cerebral boxing rings’. Asking questions here, could even be seen as a sign of intellectual weakness. They typically draw understated snickers from the rest of the group. The reactions directed towards the person asking it, are akin to someone not having done the required homework, or having misunderstood the situation. It’s the fundamental reason for the improvements recommended, remaining at only a surface level. This is why assumptions stay so long on the table. True disruptions are tantalizingly elusive. They can only be achieved by examining issues anew. Only naïve questions open the doors to that.

Children have the happy-though some parents might say, irritating-knack of incessantly asking the innocent question. The reason these leave adults stumped so often, is because grown-ups assume they know things, until subjected to a series of ‘why’s’ by their little tormentors. These often usher in the realisation, they only thought they knew the subject, when they understood it merely superficially. Edwin Land invented the Polaroid camera, when he was unable to satisfy his son’s query of wanting to see his picture right then. Questions, of all sorts, have the property of bringing clarity to issues. They open up possibilities. They pave the path for interesting ideas to develop, with all puns around imaging intended.

Tell the tall tale

Children are natural born storytellers. How children frame their experiences in terms of tales, when it comes to either making excuses to get out of trouble, or building castles in the air for their friends to visit, is a far more critical skill than is given credit for at that age. It’s sad, how fast that ability fades as one grows older. Very quickly, as children climb the academic staircase, the focus on facts comes at the expense of fiction. Yet, the very essence of strategy is the ability to glimpse the larger picture. It involves the capability of rising above the details, to determine the drift of events. It entails exploring overarching storylines. It is, fundamentally put, a ‘connect the dots’ exercise. This is something children revel at.

Stories have the advantage of lending meaning to various abstruse concepts, from organisations, new product offerings, to people led initiatives. They present a grander scheme of things. Stories increase the engagement of stakeholders in the journey of the company, be these investors or the general public. In present times, the narratives which AI excite, provide investments on colossal scales. Not because of the present reality, but because the destinations on the horizon seem so much more exciting. India’s freedom struggle, based around ahimsa, penned the larger narrative of a non-violent peaceful populace, being denied and oppressed by a violent regime. This helped it resonate deeply across the world. Turning the other cheek, as children would concur, not just makes for a great narrative; at times, it could also be downright cheeky, speaking strategically that is.

Dabble with nonsense

Children have a fabulous facility in terms of exploring the absurd. They have an inborn talent at making sense out of nonsense. They resist the confines of logical thought, and merrily bound along irrational detours, absolutely oblivious to what these might entail. The tendency to just start on a journey, even if that seems daft, and then give it up completely, if it ceases to entertain them, can seem ludicrous to adults. But it is precisely that kind of mental flexibility which ensures fluidity in critical thinking in later years. The cerebral dexterity of switching lanes can be crucial, when one hits a road block on the street being examined. Just as, going down a seemingly dilapidated runaway, can sometimes cause things to truly take off.

Too much of the focus in strategic thinking rooms is spent in trying to stay on the straight and rational. However, for real ‘out of the box’ ideas to emerge, a drastic change of mindset is required. Logical pursuits have their undoubted merits, but uncover little, when it comes to things which would truly transform the situation. That requires the courage of leaving the crutches of the rational, and taking a leap of faith into the seemingly pointless. Think how daft, even the idea of combining a phone with a camera would have seemed-even to a tech enthusiast-as recently as three decades ago. Yet, the smartphone industry, did not just stop there. It kept adding on one utility after another onto the platform. And like a kid, cramming a lot of his buddies onto his go-kart, it has never looked back since.

 Giggle and chuckle

It is poignant to reminisce, how easily we all laughed as children. The gurgling of mirth, not only made all interactions fun; it also created a ‘compound of geniality’ around wherever the interaction was happening. This helped everyone participate. Without fear of judgment. Empowered with a license to find the funny in the frustrating and futile. That made everything so much more memorable. It also helped create magic moments, which lingered long thereafter. Hearteningly, children actively seek the joke, where all adults do, is try to deconstruct what the last person spoke.

Strategic, or any other thinking forum, which are collective initiatives, thrive on the environment which is set in the room. The runners of such meetings are ‘climate control experts’, in the sense that they regulate the mood and temperature within the four walls. Their purpose, of coming up with path breaking ideas and strategies, is served better if they endeavor to promote the easy laugh. Learning to laugh at any challenge, at a primary level, makes it seem a lot less intimidating. It fuels interaction in the room, and sets the right chemistries in place. But perhaps, most importantly, the lateral thought seeking imperative of any kind of humor, kindles ideas better than anything else. Humor has to thus be a mandatory intervention, in any such thinking setting. Isaac Asimov said, “The phrase which almost always accompanies great innovation is not ‘Eureka’, but ‘Hey, that’s funny!’”. It’s time we fastened our meeting seat buckles, and adjusted them for long lasting chuckles.

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