Thursday, August 13, 2015

Narratives we weave and get entangled in: Book Review of Reconstructing Strategy

Book cover with a bent pencil

Everybody has a story, or rather, everyone has their own narratives. We soon become not only a figment of our imagination (with the so-called ego being the most persuasive one), but are also more often than not ruled by the imaginations of others. Society, those formless yet tangible and ever-present eyes stare at us, judge, and define us. It is in others that we view and reflect ourselves and it is in others that we check for confirmation of our self-identity.

In fact, it is quite normal to misjudge ourselves, including our personality, our abilities, and our performance (at work and in bed). You may think you are the handsomest or funniest man alive, but when no girl turns her head in your direction or no one laughs at your jokes, you might want to re-evaluate how you see yourself and find something that is more in line with reality.

This can also work in its opposite direction where we underestimate ourselves. We may suffer from minority complexes or think we are not a good person or not skilled enough, but all of it may be subsumed to the distorted and fragmented mirror of insecurity that we see ourselves in.

However, self-identity is not limited to individuals. It is more overarching than that. Self-identity is also related to companies and more importantly, countries. Countries define imaginary borders that over time and through different narrative strands become an accepted reality. It is the histories of culture and national identity that forms the present, but at anytime these stories can be changed or redirected towards other goals and objectives.

These are stories that we swallow up and they become ingrained in society, which in turn influences the individual perspectives. Such narratives can give us grounding and comfort, but they can also become dangerous, especially when they are belligerent or when they lead to exclusion of or aggression towards others.

In the past, the narrative of communism influenced major decisions and plans when it came to foreign policies or downright reasons and pretexts for wars. Today that narrative has been replaced with terrorism. I am not saying that terrorism does not exist, but that it has become part of the global lens through which decisions are made, fear is created and augmented, and wars are wagered. This brief introduction hopefully shows how important these narratives are and how we often weave them into our identity; in some situations, we even become entangled in them and do not see the truth and reality out there.

Now let us talk about the awesome book by Dr. Saqib Qureshi entitled Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing with the God of Objectivity. It is a mouthful of a title, but do not be discouraged by it; this book is indeed a rewarding read that is worth your time. The author Qureshi shows us that the problem with strategies whether related to the individual, the company or even countries is the fact that they overlook the important influence and impact of self-identity.

By strategy Qureshi and I simply mean defining and setting the starting and endpoints and finding the means to get there. For example, an individual may see himself at the current point, i.e. myself on the obese side, and then envision himself on the desired side, a skinny and healthy me (ideally the teenage version of myself). Then the trick is to find the best way or strategy for getting to that point.

In this situation, it is easy to give cookie-cut or sample answers. Go to the gym and work out for two hours a day, you may say. But this strategy may not work for everyone, or it may not be the best solution for all. I for one do not like gyms and would soon feel discouraged and drop the whole thing altogether, so goodbye to this strategy. This is when knowing the personal details, the make-up of the body, underlying health issues or psychological problems or preferences would help to find the best path for the given individual.

To give another example, an academic adviser would not tell you to become an engineer, but would need to take into consideration your skills, interests and capacities. In most cases, financial information as well as personal preferences regarding living space and environment becomes of importance as well. Put differently, there is no objective truth for the best strategy out there; there are a number of individual differences to consider. What is good or interesting for me may not be so for you.

This may seem like common sense, but the main reason we do not use it is that our modern world and science has led us to believe that we can be objective. This has been a modern philosophical trend where knowledge is claimed to be pure and free of subjective vestiges. Scientists claim to know the facts, and these facts are purported to be applicable to all situations and conditions. (Thank God for quantum mechanics for shaking that hubris a little and for bringing about occasional headaches in firm and headstrong scientists!)

And guess what, the claim for objectivity is another narrative we have come to swallow. It's a good and sturdy one, for sure, but nobody can fully and truly be objective since there are always, whether we acknowledge it or not, social, cultural, psychological influences that guide us hither and thither. This is phenomenology messing with our wannabe objective minds.

After setting up the theoretical basis, Qureshi looks at different examples and case studies from each of the categories, namely of the individual, the company, and the nation. For example, in case of individuals, he looks at Jan Morris who changed his sex and found a better fit for his both perceived and felt identity. As a result, he became not only physically a woman, but also engaged in what sociologists call role theory: society helped and made him behave, think and identify as a woman.

For instance, she became less skilled with car mechanics and lost some of her math skills. This is not meant to claim that women are innately bad at these things, but simply that they are perceived or expected to be bad at them, which often, but not always, becomes a self-fulfilling fallacy.

In these situations, we can see how we more closely identify with the role we are supposed to play in society. This also applies to the change of fatherhood. It happens quickly and suddenly; our self-identity shifts and what was important yesterday is not so today. Shelve those dreams of riding in a fast car, which is expensive and, more significantly, dangerous, and replace it with the safer and more family-friendly station wagon.

Yet Qureshi's example of Ed Husain was the most poignant one. In his young adulthood, Husain unfortunately got caught up in radical Islam and this ended up shaping his worldview to the utmost degree. He ended up shunning family, friends, alcohol and girls, and all of this happened within a short period of time. It shows us that we can be brainwashed quickly and adopt a very different self-identity as a result. The same happens to anyone who joins cults or any other extreme and radical group or society.

Qureshi further looks at such shifts within countries. His most interesting example was that of Iran that within a few years changed from a Westernized place filled with booze and miniskirts (imagine that!) to the place we think of today that is religiously strict or strictly religious. The defining moment was the 1979 Islamic Revolution that shifted gears and radically changed the identity of the country affecting the lives and destinies of millions of people.

In terms of businesses, I found his description and depiction of Disneyland the most appealing. In this case, he claims that a clear and focused identity, that is the desire to create happiness for all and to offer a synthetic fantasy world that is free of litter and everyday worries, helps to create the best strategy at hand. There may be other amusement parks and competition out there, but none compare to the paramount and resilient success of Disneyland / -world.

So far I have had nothing but praise for the book. It is indeed a timely one considering globalization and global politics. And the author backs it up with erudite knowledge and studies ranging from business and political sources to psychological and philosophical research. The fact that he himself is a Muslim gives the whole a healthy and refreshing spin on these current issues, and he has interesting views and insights on Gitmo and Dubya.

What further impressed me was the fact that he was using what are deemed by many as non-academic but popular sources to back up his claims. The most portentous would be to include Dr. Phil as an embodiment of life strategy approaches. Why not? And then there are quotes from Buzz Lightyear and other popular memes.

Yet there is a downside to this book; the flaw is minor, but I need to mention it in order to give a balanced perspective here. The author thinks himself funnier and wittier than he is in reality. Sorry to burst the bubble! The reason might be that his humor is too self-conscious; put differently, he is trying too hard to please or amuse the reader.

Notwithstanding, there are a few really funny bits, such as Hegel's hypothetical cover letter for a communications firm being rejected or that the author consistently over time does not see himself as a “fluid lesbian.” But these humorous instances are rather rare. His constant references to McDonald's also sounded more of an endorsement than intended. It reminded me of a class I was giving where I detailed the many harmful effects of fast food by using the Golden Arches as an example. However, right after the break, the majority of my students showed up with packages of that same food I intended to discourage!

Also, while I am nagging with his style, there was a bit too much repetition for me. Yes, he did hammer his message home, but he could have used fewer nails to do so. Just saying.

But I am more than glad to have had the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book. Many thanks to the author and to Kristi Hughes for sending me an advance copy to peruse (and apologies for taking my sweet time to do so)! If you are interested in strategy, business, foreign policy, political history, psychology or you just want a good comprehensive book to read, this one ought to be on your shelf!

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