A few days ago at lunch time with my new manager, I was asked about cultural differences I encountered when I moved to America. After I answered her, the question echoed in my head for a few days. Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Strategy may be one of the most overused words in the English language. It also may be one of the most misused…even though there may not be a common understanding of what exactly the word means”. As a linguist in Iraq, I translated numerous meetings at various levels to include high ranking American and Iraqi officials. Basically, I was involved in simultaneous translation during meetings where strategic decisions were discussed and could change the history of Iraq. A few wrong choice of words, and the course of history would change.
In those meetings, I learned about a new strategy, and I would like to share it. It is called “Insha’Alla Strategy”. It is built on a common understanding of uncertainty with probabilistic of Bayes’ theorem. I will attempt to explain the Iraqi Insha’Allah Strategy, then contrast it with America’s perspective.
In Iraq, there is a famous “Insha’Allah” cliché which translates to “If God’s Willing”. It is one of the most overused clichés in Iraq. And, most likely, it’s the first word people will learn when visiting Iraq. It is used almost anytime and for any circumstance. For example, “Insha’Allah” is consistently used across all levels where decisions are made, whether it be two friends trying to schedule a meeting or senior level government decisions. A final decision is made, yet the discussion or meeting ends with “Insha’Allah”. People leave with .01% sense of uncertainty. It is a 99% confirmation. The funny part is that everyone in the back of their minds already knows this. It is an Exit door, or more or less a religiously acceptable excuse. To put it in perspective, somehow all decisions will magically be implemented if God wills it to be done. Therefore, most of the time nothing will be accomplished. It is a way of doing business and running a meeting in Iraq.
A funny proof for why things never get done in Iraq:
Prior Probability (x): Prior cancelled meeting or unreached decisions = 90%
Future Probability (y): The probability of cancelling a meeting or obtaining a decision = 100%
Probability that nothing wrong will happen (z): 0.0008%
Revised estimate of the Insha’Alla probability = XY / XY + z (1-x) =99.99% nothing will get accomplished
One of the cultural differences is the richness of the English vocabulary in comparison to the Arabic language. One of the words is “Strategy”. During my life under Saddam’s regime, “Strategy” was one of the few words that set the Iraqi mind to a war setting. It has a war sentiment. In general, if people are caught using this word in public gathering by a security officer of the Ba’athiest party, then you can almost bet that these people will be detained and investigated further about their motive. It could indicate that these people have a motive that could affect the security of Iraq, the stability of Saddam’s regime or the distribution of propaganda. Hence, I grew up sensitive to the word “Strategy”.
In America, “Strategy” is one of the words that is extensively used. I remember one time, at my first company I worked for named Nexus Technology, we were interviewing a candidate for Oracle Administrator, my coworker asked him over the phone, “what is your strategy to install Oracle on SAP system?” I started to notice that the applicant was caught off guard and confused by the word “Strategy”. After a few clarifying questions, the applicant realized that he was being asked about steps he would take to install Oracle. It was an obtuse way of saying, “Can you install Oracle on SAP?”
Strategy has become a famous cliché in America with many versions such as: “Strategic Planning”, “Strategic Vision”, “Strategic Intent”, “Strategic Positioning”. It seems as if people are competing for the top prize for the sexiest version and use of Strategy. Yet, after years in school, B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science, 80k in school loans, many books read, and resume improvements, I came to realize that we can translate Strategy to Insha’Allah.
Maybe the biggest difference between Western Culture and Eastern Culture is those who believe that they control their own destiny in comparison to those who believe nothing will happen unless God allows it. It is a tangible embodiment of differences in one of the most controversial arguments between predestination and free will. Is the future in our hands and predestined by the fulfillment of our decisions or is it prone to some random event that could be called a Black Swan? America is a culture driven by steps to achieve success of desired goals. Yet these goals are left in the fate of randomness.
100s of hours of reading numerous bestselling books that ranged from self help to business development full of personal success stories from top CEOs and elite people, referred to as a “Business Guru with their heroic stories”. A theme that could be summarized in few words: They all came from nothing, overcame big obstacles, and then made millions. Then, they write their version for a successful recipe. These topics could range from ” Asshole: How I Got Rich & Happy by Not Giving a Damn About Anyone & How You Can, Too” by Martin Kihn, to “Mastery” by Robert Greene. (few of my 2012, 2013 books)
I may not be predestined to be the next Zuckerberg, Page, or Job even if I ran my 10,000 hours to be an outlier according to Malcolm Gladwell , I don’t like to suffer from the delusion of success. I will sail my predetermined path to my promise land, knowing that the living Jesus will never go bankrupted. This will make me happier and relax as a person because I know that some things in life will never go according to plan.
My summery will be a quote from the Management Myth, and a link to a page from Anti-Fragile. Matthew Stewart writes in his book: “In the context of complex decisions with uncertain outcomes and no obvious right answer, the managerial mind inevitably longs for some handrails to grasp amid the smoke and flames. Strategic planning offers that consolation-or illusion- of a sure path to the future.” This will be my contribution and view to the strategy genre and “Insha’Allah” where end results are almost the same and anything behind this is just baloney.
* mathematical formula is inspired by “The signal and the noise” By Nate Silver