Living “Heuristically” and Strategy Execution


The unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates

The unlived life is not worth examining. -Sheldon Kopp

After 60+ years of bumping through life I subscribe 100% to the latter quote.  If you haven’t embraced a life of stretching outside your comfort zone, choosing risk rather than certainty, loved even though it hurt, took the road less travelled, then there’s not much to examine.  We don’t learn much about ourselves or others by playing it safe or taking the easy way out.  You can’t build muscles unless you confront weight resistance and you can’t build experience or capability unless you embrace the resistance and challenges of life.

There is a term I like to use for this type of behaviour (some would say it’s reckless).  The term I use is “heuristic“.  In the classical definition, a heuristic is a mental or method shortcut that allows one to quickly make judgements or solve problems.  In other words, a heuristic shortcut is an educated guess or set of hypotheses used to quickly attack a problem.  The approach taken may not be totally correct or precise, but in applying a heuristic shortcut one engages with the problem quickly, get a small amount of insight about the problem, which adds to our knowledge base and allows us to formulate an even better approach.  Successive applications of a heuristic shortcut, each one more informed than the last, quickly allows us to zero in on the solution.  While an algorithm is precise, a heuristic is approximate.  Sort of like “fuzzy logic“.

The lesson for me in the above is that by engaging in life fully, even though I don’t know fully what I’m getting into, I “learn as I go”.  In other words, through direct experience I  gain insight and (hopefully) some wisdom faster than if I sat around and studied all the options, risks and possible approaches.

“Action often leads to results, even if I don’t know what I am doing!”

your_plan-realityI believe the same is true as an approach to effective strategy execution.  First of all, there is no perfect strategy.  All strategy is based on assumptions and besides, as soon as that great strategy is formulated, the business world changes, new competitors emerge, technology takes a leap forward, and the game changes.  So rather than opt for crafting the perfect strategy with massive analysis,  detailed spreadsheets and mountains of market intelligence, get it 80% good then get on with executing.

As soon as you get out in the market place and start executing on your strategic initiatives you immediately begin learning what works and what doesn’t.  Now you can use that insight and learning to improve and refine your strategy.  Then get back out in the marketplace and learn some more, refine some more, etc.  I call this using “strategic incrementalism” rather than trying to achieve strategic perfection up front.  Your strategy is now heuristic and you are fully engaged with your market and your customers.

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

Thanks for joining the dialogue.

John R Childress

Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid


PS: John also writes thriller novels

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
This entry was posted in consulting, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Life Skills, Organization Behavior, Personal Development, Psychology, Self-improvement, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Living “Heuristically” and Strategy Execution

  1. Raunak says:

    neat! reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The power of thinking without thinking”


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