How modern management tools can avoid an Odyssey
We all remember Odysseus’ strenuous journey narrated by the Greek poet Homer in his famous work, the Odyssey. On his way home, the superhero of Greek mythology had to overcome various obstacles, including cannibals, sea monsters, a sorceress with a dangerous potion, a Cyclops, and many more. Today, many executives feel like Odysseus when using traditional management tools. Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy, and Michael König, Senior Lecturer at WU Vienna’s Department of Strategy and Innovation, had a closer look at why companies need to be versatile and apply shrewd planning in times of uncertainty and what turns the Odyssey could have taken if Odysseus had already had the opportunity to use modern tools such as the Dynamic SWOT Analysis and Strategic Foresight.
In his famous epic poem consisting of 24 books, Homer describes the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus, who, in his efforts to find his way back home, had to overcome one dangerous obstacle after another for many years. All these perilous adventures drive Odysseus off his course time and again, while at home, his wife has to fend off a plenitude of suitors trying to assume his throne.
Today, many executives feel like Odysseus: unpleasant surprises drive them off their meticulously planned course. In times of digital transformation, uncertainty is their constant companion. “The Odyssey is a wonderful narrative that provides lessons on how to deal with this kind of uncertainty,” says Michael König, Senior Lecturer at WU’s Department for Strategy and Innovation. This leaves one question for managers: can strategic tools, like the widely known SWOT Analysis, help us avoid going astray and constantly changing directions? “In the course of the story, Odysseus learns from his mistakes, such as his overconfidence in dealing with the Cyclops, whom he blinds with a red-hot pole to escape the cave together with his men while putting all of their lives at risk,” says König. Learning from mistakes, being receptive to signals, and reacting in time – all of these are traits that managers must possess also nowadays.
Odysseus probably would not have been able to avoid his arduous journey altogether, but learning from his own behavior and applying foresight – looking ahead to avoid imminent danger – could have helped him stay away from at least some detours and perils. The same applies to companies: past successes do not guarantee future triumph; the right path taken yesterday may well lead you to a dead end tomorrow. This is what makes it so important to take the past, the present, and the future into equal consideration. But which tools can be used for this purpose? Relying on the popular Static SWOT Analysis as part of your strategic management is often insufficient. This method is used to implement strategic measures based on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. “But you only write down what you see,” König warns. Instead, the Dynamic SWOT Analysis is a more effective tool, making it possible to check one’s strengths and weaknesses against future developments, among other things. For this purpose, you have to look farther than to what is relevant right now. You have to consider future challenges and analyze how likely they are to occur and to what degree they will have an influence on the company. Therefore, the Dynamic SWOT Analysis will help you come up with plausible scenarios for the future.
“All executives should invest in Strategic Foresight to be better prepared for future change,” agrees Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy. As it is impossible for companies to provide for all contingencies, it becomes more important to recognize and analyze signs early on, for example realizing that the boundaries between industry branches are blurring and that the competition may now stem from completely different sectors. Other examples would be asking yourself what the consequences of a technological leap may be or what will happen after a sudden drop in prices. On a related note, Ms. Pattart-Drexler mentions a quote by the CEO of a large German car manufacturer: “Never has a scenario occurred in the way we had predicted. But having thought it through made us flexible, efficient, and fast when it came to making a decision – no matter what the future might have brought.”
Which course would the Odyssey have taken if Odysseus had already had modern strategic management tools to his disposal? Could Strategic Foresight have helped him come home earlier? This would have also depended on his attitude: returning from the Trojan War victoriously, Odysseus seemed to think that he was perfectly prepared for the future. But in fact, he had to deal with completely different dangers and obstacles – as is also true for many companies that have become arrogant due to their past success. “This is the greatest barrier,” says Michael König. The oil industry is a blatant example of how their past success blinds companies to future challenges. Another problem is the fact that managers tend to keep using the same tools that have been successful in uneventful times also during times of uncertainty: they have more data on their hands today than ever before, but this might also be misleading them. According to Mr. König, the problem is not in big data but in small data – the data that we do not know.
Executives have to accept that the future may look completely different from today. They have to be able to come up with alternative decisions in a structured manner.
Mr. König thinks that the first line in the Odyssey basically tells it all, calling Odysseus a “man of many ways”: “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways.” Michael König adds, “This is about understanding the past, the present, and the future – a skill all executives should have in order to be prepared for uncertain times.”
For executives who are afraid of having to go on a business odyssey, Michael König offers three recommendations that sum it up perfectly:
It should be encouraging to us that Odysseus still made it home to his family and his throne despite the unexpectedly long journey and all the mistakes he had made – just the same as companies that are well prepared for future developments will face a happy end.
If you are interested to read more about Strategic Foresight, please click here.