Sunday, April 26, 2009

Get the Walnut

The wonderful video by Danish animator Bente, above, provides an interesting metaphor for strategic planning. The video starts off with a game of Bocce--trying to get a silver bocce ball closest to the red target jack. The first round in the scene ends by taking a measurement, followed by another round as each silver ball knocks the next out of the game.

Meanwhile a bunch ants are intently watching the game unfold, pursuing an errant ball which they commission for the next scene. One ant takes a position on top of the ball while the other ten lift and carry the globe to the whistle-time of the top ant. They carry the ball out of the village into the country side where five fellow ants are waiting patiently with a walnut at the base of a cliff. (Get the picture? Watch the video!)

The top ant on the bocce ball takes instruction from the top ant on the walnut. Soon the first team is carrying the ball up the cliff to the first landing, where --after the walnut team scatters-- they push it off so the silver orb rockets down to the walnut, driving it into the sand. The walnut is unscathed.

Surveying the results, the team places the walnut on a shard of tile and carries the ball up the cliff again for another try. This time the tile is shattered, and the walnut is again untouched. For the next attempt, the ants put the walnut on a rock. The bocce ball scores a direct hit, but the walnut ricochets away, and lands whole.

The lead ant carefully surveys the situation, sets a higher target, and calls the team to carry the globe to a higher perch. The ball rockets down, with the lead ant riding along, and it hits the nut squarely. Finally the top of the walnut is broken, but all is not well. There's a worm inside the nut munching away. The story ends with a team of ants looking a bit wide-eyed and in despair.


So what is so compelling about this for the strategist? I'd like to call your attention to a half-dozen things:

  1. All the process, planning and measurements don't get you to your results; playing the game does
  2. First tries usually don't work, but there are opportunities for adjustment (and you gotta love the ants' industriousness)
  3. The try-try-again team approach produces learning; it may also produce results. (Don't forget one for the other.)
  4. The coach doesn't carry the ball, but sometimes takes a ride for the team.
  5. Setting your sights higher sometimes produces something closer to the outcome intended
  6. Even in success, there are usually unintended consequences; life, like worms, is what happens when you're making other plans.
There are probably another half-dozen insights you can pick up from this short story. That's the power of telling rich stories; they inspire our imaginations.

Tell me what jumped out at you. Here's what most jumped at me:
  1. Start with a vision and a need (they need to dialog)
  2. Look outside for more ideas (nothing happened in the ant farm)
  3. Have a specific destination (out of town, where the real obstacles are)
  4. Vary like mad to get the one that works (if times are bad, vary more, not less)
  5. Don't get surprised by surprises (find another nut)
I'll leave you with two classic quotes to mull over:

"A good deal of corporate planning ... is like a ritual rain dance. It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. ... Moreover, much of the advice related to corporate planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather." -- Brian Quinn, Dartmouth College

"Would you mind telling me, please which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" --so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
--Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

A strategist would do well to study the stories.


  1. The "coach" ant, situated on top of the silver bocce ball, directs the tempo the effort and is in a position to maintain direction for those occupied with the "doing".

  2. Great video! I agree with your and David's comments/take-aways.

    Another thought that jumps out at me is that since a thing in motion tends to stay in motion - and a team on a mission tends to stay on that mission - it would take tremendous foresight and independent thought to identify a current team goal as undesirable and/or illogical, and even greater leadership to successfully divert a team from that goal they have been ardently pursuing.