A few weeks ago, I wrote the following entry on my blog (www.exploitingchange.com): In the military, young officers and NCOs are taught to think “beyond the next hill.” This means that you can’t just focus on the next objective, the next tactical bound (an intermediate objective for movement), or the next moment in time. You have to constantly be thinking of what can happen next. You also have to think of what can or can’t happen as a result of your decisions and actions. It’s not unlike what good chess players, good pool players, and good golfers do. They are constantly thinking of the moves and countermoves that will follow the next one.

This type of anticipatory thinking is distinctive from contingency planning. In contingency planning, we anticipate events and situations that are largely independent of our own actions and that are inherently uncertain. An example is the potential effect of weather on a building project. Whether it is raining or sunny, this can affect the speed of, say, road construction. No amount of prior planning can affect the weather. On the other hand, it is possible to take measures to attenuate the potential effects of the weather in order to optimize the construction project. This is the domain of contingency planning.

But whenever we are dealing with people, we enter a completely different realm requiring a different type of anticipation. Someone once said that the difference between the natural – or hard – sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, engineering, etc.) and the human sciences is like the difference between kicking a rock and kicking a dog. The differences are qualitative rather than quantitative. It is evident that we are in completely different domains of knowledge and practice.

This type of interaction requires dynamic foresight, i.e. the ability not only to anticipate, but to do so based on one’s own “moves” and the other person’s goals, motivations, and interests. Whenever you’re negotiating, you have to envisage the range of possible responses and reactions to your offers, and prepare your own contingent responses. This type of move-countermove dynamic can play out over several cycles.

I would extent this further by noting that this is the entire domain of strategy. People often colloquially refer to their strategy for doing things where there is no chance of an intentional response. For instance, you can say you have a strategy for digging a hole, but in reality the ground doesn’t have any intention of resisting the digging. There are contingent factors, such as weather, but this doesn’t mean there is another party to the digging. On the other hand, any time you are interacting with other human beings who have their own goals and intentions and motivations, you are necessarily in the realm of strategy. The ability to anticipate their reactions and responses more than one move ahead is vital to achieving your aims.

Regardless of your objectives, the surest route to effective strategic interactions is to determine at the outset whether you are in a situation of conflict, competition, or cooperation. Many strategic interactions falter because the stakeholders fail to realize that people act and react differently depending on the tone of interactions, especially if they perceive that their fundamental interests are at stake. For instance, negotiations can take a very different turn depending on whether you see yourself in conflict or competition (win-lose) or cooperation (win-win). Some leaders try to motivate their personnel by putting them in competition with each other when what is really called for is cooperation. This can be even worse when the leader creates conflict between team members.

Further ineffectiveness can result from treating people like rocks and physical objects, rather than living, breathing beings with motivations, aspirations, and interests that may differ substantially. This requires insight into personality, behaviour, and emotions. It also requires the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s interactions, not just immediately, but even more “beyond the next hill.”

© Alcera Consulting Inc. 2011. We encourage the sharing of this information with attribution. All other rights reserved.

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