Cutting the Gordian Knot doesn't solve problems of strategic nature

In 333 BCE, when Alexander reached the city of Gordium (near modern day Ankara), he heard of a famed knot tied on an ox cart. It was said that whoever untied the knot would rule the world. Instead of untangling the complex set of knots, Alexander took his characteristic approach to solving problems, slashing the knot with a stroke of his sword, thus 'untying' it in his own iconoclastic way.

Cutting the Gordian knot is a metaphor for solving a complex problem in a direct and unconventional manner.

Given the legend of its originator and machismo of his solution, it is often eulogized whenever a decisive leader slashes through complex situations instead of unravelling them painstakingly. The approach makes for impactful storytelling, but poor management lessons.

As leaders rise in seniority, they develop a penchant for reductive briefs. One-page memos, 10-slide presentations and quick standing meetings have become the norm in many companies. On the face of it, this seems efficient. After all, why waste time on hours of deliberation if a decision can be taken on two or three options? This works well for simple reviews or binary choices. However, at strategic levels, decisions are seldom simple or binary, and a Gordian slice might solve an issue instantly but compound it over a longer span. That is because problem-solving at the strategic level is a very different art form than at the tactical or even operational levels.

The latter are corralled within an overarching strategic plan and must have responses within tight deadlines. When a platoon comes under fire, or a HR recruiter needs to arrest attrition of key talent, both leaders have to respond immediately, based on laid-down protocols and within the limited options available. Hence those decisions can be reductive and binary, as they usually are.

But, say, if the nation's territorial, economic or energy security is threatened or a company culture needs a transformation, then these strategic decisions cannot to be taken the same way. Such strategic decisions have numerous imperceptible links between seemingly unconnected areas, with multiple orders of consequence. Let us take two examples to illustrate this dilemma.

India and China are belligerent in many arenas, such as territorial disputes, regional aspirations, alliances with power blocs, political ideology, etc, and skirmish regularly at the border and international forums. However, despite political posturing, India's economic dependence on its arch foe compels it to adopt a dual relationship, where our armies may fight but our commerce collaborates. This is not duplicity; it is the reality of a strategic situation where decisions have to be made for the short- and the long-terms and between bad and worse choices.

Similarly, when an organization must transform itself, say, from a business-to-business industrial or a trading culture to one that is retail customer-focused, such as telecom, many initiatives involving a multitude of internal functions must be executed in synchrony. For a better understanding of customers, for example, the organization's staff may need a similar mix of profiles. It would be important to imbibe the values of its target customer group, rather than trying to impose its existing industrial culture on customers.

When leaders try to solve strategic problems with techniques that work well in tactical or operational situations, they tend to miss their targets because they are trying to address strategic issues with an operational toolkit.

Let's take a look at this from another perspective.

Cyber threats are now among the top three risks of any organization. Ever since cyber security acquired strategy level mind-share, empirical evidence has emerged to demonstrate that 'unaware' employees constitute the biggest crack in the cyber armoury of an organization. More than 90% of breaches occur because a benign employee unwittingly 'allows' it. In other words, 90% of successful cyber-attacks are psychological attacks, not technological ones. Yet, cyber security teams of even the most evolved organizations rarely have personnel with psychology majors!

When it comes to national security, a quick way of discerning the same dichotomy between operational and strategic thinking would be to assess how many people we have in our entire national-security establishment who are fluent in Mandarin, let alone those who have travelled to China and spent time studying the country first hand.

Operational thinking can and often needs to be a selection among available options, whereas strategic thinking invariably requires capacity building and environment shaping, an activity which by definition requires meticulous deliberation rather than a Gordian approach.

Alexander did go on to conquer vast territory that stretched from Greece to India within a decade, thus fulfilling the prophecy. However, when he was at the far end of his conquests, his soldiers tired of his insatiable ambition and mutinied. Since his pace of advance did not allow time for consolidation or succession, Alexander's empire withered away within years of his death, splintered by satraps fighting one another in a leadership vacuum. He left behind little other than cities bearing his name, folklore and lessons on the importance of unravelling complex problems painstakingly.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of 'Everyman's War'.