Nathan/ You have a different approach to strategy from most traditional strategists, partly because you’ve said, before, that it’s broken. How do you fix it, either how it’s taught or how it’s practiced?

Jon Pittman/ I built our process [at Autodesk] around the idea of “strategic intent.” I got the idea from Phillip Lay. He and Jeffrey Moore were partners. Phillip consulted with us for a while. I put together the strategy process for Autodesk and then I wanted to look more into intent. It’s not this planning-driven thing. It’s about having big ambition—a big picture of who you are and who you want to be. There’s a little book in the military, entitled War Fighting. It’s only a hundred pages long. It was the Marine Corps doctrine. A commander, coming out of the Marine Corps 20 years ago, wrote this letter that is the book. The Marines, in particular, go into very fluid situations. You can’t decide ahead of time what’s going to happen and tell everybody what to do. In the hierarchy, they have the commander’s intent—what the Commander: “Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish.” That drives everything else.

At the next level down, they break a challenge into pieces from the Commander’s intent—what you’re trying to accomplish—all the way down to the person on the ground who must know how that intent impacts their goals. That gives them freedom of action—to decide how they’re going to do it—but, they first need to know what goal to accomplish. To me, strategy is building a hierarchy of intents where everybody knows what to accomplish, but has the freedom of movement and creativity to solve their challenges in service of that intent.

Nathan/ That’s the best thing within the organization too—especially for consumer-oriented organizations. I remember the days when US airlines empowered the people at the ticket desk, the gate, and on the plane to make decisions when problems occurred. Then, to cut costs, they just forced rules on customer-facing employees that might or might not solve the problem and took away all of their agency. It’s interesting that you mention a book on strategy that came from the military. That’s also where scenario planning came from. Would this have come from anywhere else but the defense industry?

Jon Pittman/ The military has to have all of these contingencies because the stakes are so high. Right. You can’t just be surprised. Think about where we were surprised, like September 11th. When the fighter jets were scrambled from Langley Air Force Base, they weren’t told where to go. They went over the ocean to their practice area because that was their drill. Everyone assumed that the threat was coming in over the ocean. Despite the preparation, it was a failure of imagination. They didn’t yet have a directive or policy about shooting down a US passenger jet.

Nathan/ This is something I didn’t plan on asking, but war is essentially adversarial and I don’t see that the kind of strategy that you practice at Autodesk as being essentially adversarial. So, is there a difference between the strategy that comes from the military and how it’s practiced by business?

Jon Pittman/ Absolutely. What I take-away from the military texts is the idea of intent and how it is passed through the entire organization. It is the clear notion of where you want to go. I think that’s too often missing in strategy. The other thing that influenced me was Michael Porter’s original article on his Five Forces. His basic point was that if you try to do what your competitors are doing, you become a commodity. Over time, commoditization is always happening. There’s this frontier of differentiation that you alwayshave to be on. You really can’t afford to be a follower. You want to be a leader and that requires you to focus on what’s different about your organization and offering that your customers care about. At Autodesk, we use this idea of “competitive separation.” It has a strong basis in economics. The idea is to find something your customers desire that your competitors cannot or will not do, because if they can replicate it, you can’t effectively compete.

Nathan/ It seems, to me, that the strategic process at Autodesk focused as much on market conditions as technology and the economy. It looked deeply at context as much as competitors. You always want to check things against competitors, of course, but it was that context that helped identify partnerships and new business drivers. That’s not really stressed in traditional business strategy.

Jon Pittman/ Strategy and planning are different things. Roger Martin speaks about this, too. Strategy is having an informed point of view about where we want to go. Planning is how we’re going to get there. You must have a point of view. You want to be deliberate‚ and not random. If you’re actually driving the company, you can’t rely on luck.

Strategy was in a unique place at Autodesk. We were under Jeff, the CTO, not Carl, the CEO. Jeff is the ultimate operator—super sharp—but, he knew enough to leave us alone and not try to operationalize us too much. We had goals and budgets, for sure, but both Jeff and Carl knew that strategy isn’t like software development or facilities or finance and couldn’t and shouldn’t be managed in the same ways. We weren’t solving an already-identified operational challenge. We were looking at things no one else in the company had the time or imperative to look at. I’m not sure how successful we actually were.

Nathan/ I think, by many measures, the company was incredibly successful during those that time: new markets, new revenue, new channels, plus the business relationships and the network. Ll of those were powerful.

Jon Pittman/ We always knew that we were in this incredibly lucky position of having all this upstream design information that was going to be used downstream for something. We saw lots of opportunity in that downstream. Our biggest problem was we were a little random capturing that with Carl. 

Nathan/ How was strategy communicated throughout the organization then? You did have very “nuts-and-bolts, boots-on-the-ground parts of the company, especially with the sales team. How did those hierarchies of intent get communicated clearly?

Jon Pittman/ The operating parts of the company all had their strategies and sales was connected with that. So, their intents and metrics were clear: ”Here’s what we’re going to do this year.” That was more difficult to do in the technical community because it had been so bottom-up for a long time. I was sitting with a bunch of professors from the University of Cincinnati at our annual conference and they were amazed at how diverse our audience was in terms of different industries and disciplines. Most people think of Autodesk as a set of software products. They were surprised by how deeply we thought about their application to practice and how we understood not only what our customers were doing with our software but what they were going through in their own businesses—what their challenges were.

Nathan/ I think that’s part of why the software was so successful in these industries. You weren’t reacting to what the industry was doing. You were seeing where the industry was going and proactively getting there before everyone else.

Jon Pittman/ Yeah, and there is always a gap. Carl used to say, “We’re 10 years ahead in the vision and two years behind in execution..” So I think that was one of our flaws.

Nathan/ Is ten years a good timeframe for strategy because, usually, it’s the three to five years.

Jon Pittman/ I always push for ten, because to build long-term capability and long-term sustainable advantage requires time and effort. Maybe, in some industries, you can do that in five years. Of course, it depends on the type of company. You can’t do that for a startup. Smaller companies can’t have the same broad aspirations, near term, that larger companies can. They don’t have as many resources. Carl used to say: “It’s like you having a ball-peen hammer versus a sledgehammer. When you start, you have a ball-peen hammer. As you grow, you get a bigger hammer.” But, everyone needs to be out there looking and not enough companies do that.=

Nathan/ Right. But, that can often be balanced by the institutional drag that bigger organizations have.

Jon Pittman/ When you have company, like Autodesk, you have a sledgehammer and when you hit real hard, you can actually move a lot of things. Big organizations need more competing interests—more points of view. Building a clear approach is harder just because of the sheer number of people and the complexity of the business.

Nathan/ What about how strategy is taught versus how you practice it?

Jon Pittman/ When I was in business school, with a few exceptions, they were captured by this analytical mindset. Most are all siloed teaching, marketing and finance and human resources all independent of each other. That’s where the case method came from. And, the genes of being very siloed are still very much alive in business schools—in both the disciplinary focus but, also, that’s how academics get rewarded. You don’t get rewarded by being an integrator.

Because I’m a designer, at heart, I understand that we’re taught to integrate. When you’re designing a car or a building or a product, you don’t just focus on part of it. You have to balance all the different systems and subsystems and they have to work together, and I don’t think that’s taught very well in business school. In design school, there’s a little case method but, mostly, you learn by doing—by making.

Also, I wasn’t necessarily the best at this in architecture school—it’s something I realized afterwards—but in a critique, the people who did really well had a good story about their solution. You know, we were all given the same program, the same site. The people who did really well had a strong point of view about why they made their decisions. And, the story has to make sense—it still needs to relate to the design. I’ve had PhD chemists in my class and they panic when I tell them they need to put a presentation to describe their projects. They never had to do that, before. They were used to describing their experiment or their theory, but this is different. On some level, it’s the same when they write a grant: how clear is it, how complete, how motivating is it?

Jon Pittman/ I’ve taken several courses at Harvard Business School, and, in 2019, in the Kennedy School. You have people from all kinds of government, plus a few private sector people like me, some military people, etc.—a realty diverse group. One thing that became clear is that there are two kinds of leadership: technical leadership (where there’s a technical fix and we know what to do, we just have to do it) and adaptive leadership, where you have a direction you want to move in but you need to coordinate among a network of people or organizations and help them all maneuver in the right direction.

This interview is from A Whole New Strategy: Everything You Need To Think And Act More Strategically