A friend of mine recently observed that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy to deter a Chinese seizure of the disputed Senkaku Islands makes no sense.
Abe wants to eliminate Japan’s renunciation of the right to wage war in Japan’s constitution, but my friend reasons it is unlikely that China would be deterred. My friend is right, but he is mistaken about one thing. Abe’s plan is not about strategy. It is about ideology, and strategy never makes sense when it is ideology in disguise, either in geopolitics or in business.
I was recently having lunch with the CEO of a major American technology company in Japan and asked about his strategy. He went on at length about how Japanese society and business must be changed to one that uses the power of big data and automation, because that is how things ought to be. He may be right, but I could discern no business strategy in what he said. He was talking ideology.
Ideology and strategy are not the same thing. Strategy is about a future vision of the business. Ideology is about a vision of society. You can realize a vision for the business because you have control over the business. A vision of society, however, is a different matter.
Businesses get into trouble when ideology supplants strategy, and Elon Musk and his business troubles are an example. Musk has strong beliefs about how the future of human society ought to operate and be, and those beliefs drive his business decisions at the expense of strategy and the people the business purportedly serves.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing misguided about using a business as a vehicle to change the world for the better. Andrew Carnegie made skyscrapers possible with his steel and changed urban development and the growth of the United States in the process. Henry Ford made mobility accessible. Steve Jobs made people’s lives mobile. However, businesses like these succeed in changing society by first contributing to it, not by reforming it. They make a contribution that provokes change. They don’t make societal change their contribution.
So beware of the ideologues. You can spot them easily. Their visions of the future are often compelling. They can speak passionately at length. Yet their business strategies make no sense.
Make sure that yours is sound.