Top-down vs. Bottom-up Strategy
Who should drive strategy? The dreamers with the big ideas or the people on the ground?
This is an ancient debate that is still raging and can inflame passions on both sides. Those on the ground feel that the dreamers miss the practicalities of everyday operations while those in the C-suite lament that implementational people fail to see the big picture.
In truth, the major issues have been settled for decades and it’s a wonder why there is still so much fuss about it.
The Ancient Debate
The dispute goes at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Plato was definitely a big picture guy. He believed that we should do our best to approximate ideal forms. Moreover, as he made clear in is allegory of the cave, he was suspicious of supposed knowledge gained from everyday experiences.
His star pupil, Aristotle, took a different view. He believed that it was best to work up from basic facts and observations to general principles. Furthermore, he practiced what he preached. Many regard Aristotle to be the first real scientist and he catalogued and astounding amount of his observations about the natural world.
Up till about a century ago, you could argue that Aristotle won the argument. Although during the Middle Ages, the Platonic dominated Church held sway, axiomatic systems such as Aristotle’s logic and Euclid’s geometry endured up until the late 19th century.
From Rational to Empirical
In the late Renaissance, the French thinker Rene Descartes set out to create a new body of knowledge that would be independent of experience and therefore certain. He made a big step in the right direction when he proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am,” proving that such a feat was possible. Unfortunately, that was the last real achievement of Rationalism. It ended there.
The Scottish Enlightenment was more practical. Men like John Locke and Adam Smith framed the political and economic principles, respectively, of the modern western world. The greatest of them all, however, was David Hume who held that we can only know what we experience.
Unfortunately, this also led to a radical skepticism. Hume proclaimed that we only believe that the sun will rise tomorrow as a matter of convenience and expediency. In Hume’s view we’re just stuck. Although, being the fat and jolly sort (think of a philosophical John Candy) he didn’t mind much, he felt we should just accept that the world is often not what it seems.
Hume’s ideas ushered in the scientific age. The 19th century saw astounding progress in engineering and science. The steam engine spurred the industrial revolution, while Darwin and Maxwell led similar revolutions in biology and physics, which led to the discovery of genetics, relativity and quantum mechanics.
As the 20th century began, it became clear that scientists were beginning to answer many of the questions philosophers had pondered for millennia. They did so not by building up from long accepted principles but through imagining how the world might work differently than previously thought.
The axiomatic method of the Aristotelians was in danger of becoming extinct or, at best, irrelevant. However, there were those who would not let it go. Men like Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert and Ludwig Wittgenstein rebuilt logic on new foundations. It was the first real attempt to do so since Aristotle created the field.
There were some real achievements. The father of the modern computer, John von Neumann, was a student of Hilbert’s and much of modern programming theory rests on the logical advances early in the 20th century. Nevertheless, this effort to0 would ultimately fail.
Trouble of Both Fronts
The 1930’s brought trouble to both camps. Einstein, who was perhaps the best example of the Platonic method (and who considered Hume one of his most important influences), was so blinded by his own vision that he missed one of the most profound developments in his field.
Although evidence was mounting for quantum mechanics, he refused to believe it (although its origins lay in Einstein’s own 1905 paper). Younger men such as Bohr and Heisenberg led the way while Einstein’s career as a serious scientist was effectively ended. Even a man of his enormous imagination failed to see the next curve in the road.
Logic fared no better. In fact, it was done in by one of its own – the logician Kurt Gödel. In 1931 he published his famous incompleteness theorems, which proved that any complete logical system must contradict itself. In other words, every system crashes no matter what principles it’s based on. Logical certainty was dead.
Quite frankly, as the basic questions have been answered for almost 80 years, I’m surprised that any confusion remains about what was a silly debate to begin with. Both methods, when used exclusively, lead to disaster. As I’ve written before, synthesizing approaches is clearly the best way to solve problems.
Nevertheless, egotistic CEO’s such as Jeff Skilling and Bernie Ebbers continue to ride their visions off a cliff while countless others die a less spectacular death by getting so mired in the details that they miss the big picture. One would hope that those who are responsible for thousands and get paid millions can walk and chew gum at the same time.
The answer to the most basic strategic question is clear: Follow your dreams, but check your facts.