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Thought Thursdays
African strategist: Are you a Bluefin or Barracuda in the land of dust?


Few strategic concepts are as difficult to grasp as the paradox of strategy in environments and epochs of high unpredictability. And all analogies employed to clarify such strategic concepts are incomplete. But, at the very least analogy conveys depictively what may be difficult to grasp analytically. 

Based on the belief that all people are creative sense-makers of their various worlds, I entrust the strategic analogies I describe below to the reader’s ability to interpret analogically, and have largely avoided a crude translation of analogy to strategy.

The use of analogy also serves well to illustrate the nature of futures science. Through the use of examples outside the self, analogy supports the epistemological tenet in futures of ‘exospection’, i.e. an investigation of the outside world as opposed to an obsession with self-discovery through introspection (the latter being the staple diet of much leadership education in the last two decades). Far from proposing a deliberate lack of critical self-unawareness or negligent obfuscation of personal weakness, the futurist simply argues that the most probable signals for a time yet to come are most likely to be found in the dynamic and emerging context, rather than within the limitation of personal perspective. For a futurist, then, the future (with due respect to Oprah) does not start with you. It starts with a deep appreciation of the world.

An important part of that world is the profoundly dichotomous and elegantly contradictory continent of Africa. Almost any observation about the continent can be gainsaid through easily accessible evidence to the contrary. This prompts the curious to ask whether anything at all may be said about the continent with any authority whatsoever. For the sensitive investigator, one way out of this cognitive quagmire is the adoption of the meta-position: if the subject evades description, then let us describe this evasive behaviour itself. Applied to Africa, this means that what we can say is that it does not yield easily to definition.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Africa, owing to its enormous diversity, is so deeply dichotomous. It contains more than 1 out of every 4 of the total number of countries in the world and more than 1 out of every 5 square kilometres of its total land area. It houses 1 out of every 6 people on the planet and its citizens form the youngest population of all the continents. These citizens speak an astonishing array of more than 2 000 languages, according to UNESCO. All its countries (save Ethiopia, Liberia and Sudan) were colonised. Even this is a riddle wrapped in a conundrum, as Africa’s own rulers of the mid-1800s actively promoted slavery, while Britain, through its Royal Navy, enforced anti-slavery legislation by freeing over 150 000 Africans (not a popular tale among anti-Europeans), only to become colonialists after the Berlin Conference in the mid-1880s (not a popular tale among pro-Europeans). By the mid-20th century, Africa was liberating itself from colonial rule, but established multi-decadal dictatorships and brutal civil wars in the disentanglement. The narrative of Africa rising waxes and wanes, interspersed most notably with boom and bust cycles in commodities. As calls for African unity abound (not least from the AU), intra-Africa trade still accounts for only 12% of total trade on the continent. Paradigmatic exceptionalism remains rife, while internationalisation remains a paradoxical priority. The story of Africa oscillates with enigmatic dissonance. 

But such conceptual conundrums must not be oversimplified and viewed as inherently and exclusively problematic. In fact, in the mind of the futurist and strategist, the risk is always coupled with the opportunity.

One way for an organisation to evaluate its own organisational strategy is not only to anticipate the risk, but also to consider the contextual conditions of a future state under which it may thrive, i.e. the ideal context for the realisation of opportunity. For such a decision, agile organisations must elect those environments under which the strategic landscape is asymmetrically bent in their favour. Processes may be cleverly streamlined and objectives may be clear, but for futurists, both risk and opportunity are best understood by appreciating the ecology of the context, not the content. An interesting analogy in current turbulent times on the continent may be found in examining unusual examples of entities that spend their entire lives in turbulent waters. One such example (in the true spirit of exospection) is, possibly surprisingly, fish.

Two apex predators (serious strategic players) in this context are the Bluefin and the Barracuda. Both are expert hunters, both demonstrate remarkable speed and both can adapt to ambient temperatures. But they function at their best under vastly different conditions. Their strategies for hunting are deeply influenced by their context, and they therefore achieve success through unique strategic adaptations.

Bluefins prefer to operate in clear, open waters and can travel over vast distances. One remarkable adaptation is that they can maintain their body core temperature up to 10 degrees above that of the ambient waters, which allows them to perform at optimal levels within a remarkably broad spectrum of contextual temperatures. This advantage enables them to maintain high productive metabolic output for predation (goal achievement) and to migrate over large distances, thus expanding the strategic hunting landscape. They prey on a wide diet of sea life, which allows for increased sampling of opportunity and probability of success. They can also dive to depths of over 2 500 metres. Because of their preferred context, Bluefins tend to be visual predators: they must have clear sight of their target and use light to seek out prey actively. It must be noted that, under clear, open water conditions, both predator and prey are easily spotted from a distance. This means that Bluefins must of necessity move at enormous speed to approach and capture prey. This combination of vast open seas, internal core temperature adaptability, speed over long distances and capacity for depth makes the Bluefin a formidable strategist, but only within the appropriate context.

Barracuda, on the other hand, favour proximity to the surface, within the intricacy of reefs and even murky waters. In this environment, visual cues are not nearly as important as other cues from the water. Under such opaque conditions, they rely on their expansive sensory systems (such as electroreception) for hunting or detecting predators. They tend to be ambush predators, and masterfully anticipate where and when prey may move. They are a highly competitive species and can be ferocious in their attacks. In order to thrive under these conditions, Barracuda have developed prominent, sharp-edged, fang-like teeth of varying sizes. They do so by operating under the radar and limit their movements to essential activity. This is because significant movement by large predators in murky waters create disturbances that act as signs of significant danger to smaller players who (we must remember) have similar sensory adaptations because they, too, have developed to survive under the same conditions. Together with their large gape, this allows them to access disproportionately sizeable prey. Barracuda are, perhaps, nature’s example of the exponential organisation.

One of the challenges of murky strategic waters is that such a milieu generally has lower dissolved oxygen concentrations, which makes it difficult to maintain a high metabolic output. Productive energy must therefore be used wisely, as the sustaining quality of the immediate environment is limited.
Another remarkable adaptation of Barracuda is the ability to inflate their bodies using a swim bladder. They do this in order to adjust their depth rapidly. This ability is used to hide from predators or hunt more adeptly. They are opportunistic predators, relying on surprise and short bursts of speed and can often act as scavengers, taking opportunities which other predators have ignored or declined. Guided by the drive to survive in the long term, they are constantly vigilant for opportunity, although immediate outcomes are often unclear. In a mélange of time horizons, the chase may be of short duration, while the ambush may take much longer. Interestingly, they are attracted to fast-paced prey, not deterred by them. They love the chase to the extent that they will often lose interest if prey behave lethargically.

Murky waters differ from clear waters in the degree of messiness which is normally associated with levels of complexity. Such complexity is driven mainly by four factors:
  1. Number – the number of prey, obstacles and predators in the environment
  2. Connectedness – the extent to which the elements in the strategic landscape can see or otherwise sense each other
  3. Choice – the options available for predators, prey and scavengers
  4. Rules – the immovable elements, such as the underwater architecture, around which both predator and prey must navigate

It should perhaps be noted that Bluefins are an endangered species, while Barracuda have thrived for over 50 million years and continue to prosper. 

Africa will demand extraordinary levels of strategic agility. Those who actively make this part of their DNA will be most likely to flourish.

Dr Morne Mostert is Director of the Institute for Futures Research, a strategic foresight unit at Stellenbosch University, whose clients include some of the leading organisations in South Africa and the rest of Africa. 






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