You can identify a strategic thinking narrative for any historical person or event and find useful lessons within that narrative. There are conventional accounts of what happened and why, but there are insights to be gathered from reexamining evidence to craft alternative narratives of cause and effect.
Let’s imagine that we could time-transport Christopher Columbus from the 15th century into the contemporary milieu with his X-factor of drive intact. Would he be successful? This conjecture might help us understand factors that are relevant to our situation. Context influences the answer. Moreover, it raises more questions: Would he have acquired a different knowledge of technologies that are cutting edge for our times (for example, advanced materials, mapping, management, navigation, and artificial intelligence)? What is the nature of his network with other innovators?
We can’t predict what would happen to Columbus in the modern day, but we can identify some forces that might shape the search for opportunity.
The blue oceans of opportunity today are not the same as in Columbus’s time. The technologies are different. But the Columbuses of today are just as curious, observant, and thoughtful.
I’ve heard people criticize Columbus for not knowing where he was going, not knowing where he was when he got there, and not knowing where he had been when he returned to Europe. From a perspective of strategy, this is unfair and ignores the role of ambiguity and emergence.
Students of strategy should recognize that an expeditionary mindset is valuable. The world is one of complex and emergent systems that seldom bend to the elitist notion of a strong-willed visionary genius. Paul Graham, a venture capitalist, writes, “Neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg knew at first how big their companies were going to get. All they knew was that they were onto something.”[i] We don’t know when Christopher Columbus realized that he was “onto something.” Although he was probably a narcissist and possibly delusional, he learned and adapted to changing situations.
The Christopher Columbus strategic thinking narrative reinforces the importance of a sharp mind in touch with the situation. Columbus discovered an insight that any other competitor could have exploited. He persevered and maintained his focus on gaining strategic resources.
One of the most empowering aspects of competent strategic thinking is the realization that ordinary people can do great things. Your challenge is to sense the details of your situation and craft an effective response.
.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.
“Get your hands on this book as soon as possible! It’s practical. It’s insightful. It’s accessible to all. Githens has the courage and experience dismantle strategy and challenge long-held orthodoxies.” Mazy Gillis
Note: I originally published this article on LinkedIn.