Behind the scenes at the Outthinker Chief Strategy Officer Summit

business innovation outthinker Nov 16, 2023

There is nothing like gathering with a group of peers from other organizations and sectors to facilitate making sense of the context in which crucial strategic decisions need to be made.  I was pleased to be an invited guest to the Outthinker CSO Summit, with the main topics being how organizations are using AI and what’s next at the intersection of strategy, innovation and organization.

Kaihan Krippendorff and the gang at Outthinkers Network carefully curate events for their members during which exchanges with experts and peer-to-peer interactions offer insights that would not be available via any other mechanism.  I feel fortunate to be part of their Leader Board and occasionally to head over to one of their sessions.  This one, on November 13, was hosted by Chief Strategy Officer for BNY Mellon / Pershing and member Thomas P. Sholes.   I jokingly said that I felt as if I were at the center of the beating heart of the capitalist system and he said I wasn’t far off, as BNY Mellon touches 20% of the world’s assets in some way.  That’s impressive.

Talking AI and strategy

One of the sessions focused deeply on what effect AI is likely to have on strategy.  Clearly, the ability to summon massive amounts of information at low cost at the touch of a button is likely to create big changes for a field that has for a long time relied heavily on analytics and data-drilling to pry insights out of generic data.  

A predictable effect is that conventional strategy analysis is likely to speed up.  As one participant put it (to chuckles all around), “now you can skip the first 3 days of your strategy offsite because AI can give you a contrast to your biases and you can get right down to the stuff you nearly always give short shrift to at the end of the meeting….”  

Some of the more fun speculations were on the role AI might play in doing some of the things that people in the traditional strategy function might do.  Imagine if synthetic AI generated voice bots could conduct informational interviews the way the GLG Group might do.  Imagine if you could summon the conventional wisdom of all the relevant consultants and see how it stacks up against your own thinking.  Imagine if you could model dozens or even hundreds of potential scenarios and assign probabilities to them that would vastly exceed human cognition.  

Of course, AI is no better than the data it's trained on, and as one participant (who happened to be a 25-year veteran at one of the big consultancies) put it, “When I was a consultant I had no f’ing clue of the organizational reality of my clients.”  Chimed in another, “The answer you get from those consultancies is very dependent on who the senior consultant is who is driving your studies.” 

MIT’s Michael Schrage encouraged us to be humble with respect to what AI-powered concepts might do for us, citing George Box’s famous observationthat “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”  The critical human dimension here is to be deliberate and proactive about what we want to achieve from the models.  

While the conclusion was that the advent of AI probably represented an inflection point in how strategy research is done, it is still going to require human judgment and human imagination to conceive of great strategies.

Strategy is relatively straightforward….but the organization?  Not so much.

A huge topic of conversation was that while AI might help with analytics, it’s much less clear how it will influence the organizational commitment necessary to make it happen throughout the organization.  How do you translate lofty strategic ambitions to the actions that need to be taken at the front line?  

In fact, as Kaihan Krippendorff points out, sometimes the right strategy is not the theoretically optimal one, but the one we can all agree on and seek to implement.  I thought that was a thought-provoking observation.  

Another concept that intrigued me in leading a change effort was to find “members of disproportionate influence,” those people who have distinctive leverage in the organization. Conceivably, AI could be one way of identifying those folks and maximizing their ability to have an impact.  Further, given that capability, we might be moving toward a world where “cascading” happens in two directions – both “down” and “up”.  I love the idea of strategic concepts “cascading up.”  

Total recall has arrived

In 2009 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I led a session called “Total Recall” in which I posited a world – not too far away – where every meeting, interaction, discussion, and document could be captured, stored, indexed, and retrieved for the viewing of anyone with access privileges.  You can see a recording of the talk I gave at this link.  

Well, that world I anticipated 14 years ago has now arrived in multiple ways, some potentially inspirational and some truly creepy.  As an example, there is a software platform called Gong that ingests everything a sales team does with a prospective lead.  All emails. All conversations (recorded, transcribed, and re-playable).  The idea, according to the good people at Gong, is to provide the salesforce with real-time feedback to help them better interact with customers and close more deals.  For instance, “Joel, did you realize you interrupted your customer 3 times during that last conversation?”  When used in the right way, I imagine that could be super helpful. But a tool like that in the wrong hands… makes me shudder.

Strategy and the ‘permissionless’ organization

During my session, I made the observation that strategy is increasingly transient, but that many organizations have not yet grappled with the implications.  One construct that I believe is going to be increasingly important is that of eliminating bureaucratic controls and replacing them with controls that have to do with guardrails, rather than tollgates, as I’ve written about previously.   More on that definitely still to come!

Meanwhile, at Valize

We’re delighted to have launched our first impact guide collection!  Think of it as a living textbook that you can use to upskill your own thinking or that of your teams.  We have a roadmap for bringing more and more of these online in the weeks and months to come.  We’re also getting great traction with our SparcHub software – software designed to bridge the gap between having a great idea and turning it into something you can bring to market.  Despite all of the powerful tools at our disposal, most organizations are still managing this process using spreadsheets!  You can see a recorded demo of the system at this link.  

We’re also working one-on-one with executives wrestling with the challenges of steering their organizations toward the future while delivering great performance today.  Get in touch to learn more about those programs.