The Merlin Factor: An introduction to strategic breakthrough thinking and how to think the unthinkable

Most attempts to improve an organization’s performance by changing its internal culture fall short of the desired results. The principal impediments to producing effective new ctions through culture change are people’s current beliefs about the limits of what it is possible to undertake and achieve. These self-limiting beliefs are based on experiences from the organization’s past. By contrast, executives who successfully instill a new strategic intent in their organization’s cultures share a leadership quality called The Merlin Factor’. The reference is to the legendary sage who, according to one account, “lived backward in time”. Merlin was born in the future and aged as he proceeded into the past, influencing events in King Arthur’s court by drawing on his foreknowledge of their destined outcomes. Exceptional leaders cultivate the Merlin-like habit of acting in the present moment as ambassadors of a radically different future, in order to imbue their organizations with a breakthrough vision of what it is possible to achieve. This document will illustrate the three action phases of the Merlin Factor: Invention, Ignition and Implementation.

Preparing for the future is increasingly urgent executive responsibility. Driven by the imperatives of a turbulent business environment, top managers are engaged in a purposeful process of systemic change. Substantial amounts of their time and ingenuity are directed toward making their organizations more maneuverable as a means of achieving competitive advantage. Decision-making is becoming more decentralized, middle management is yielding many of its traditional control functions to the front line workforce. Yet despite the most detailed strategic plans and vigorous change efforts, goals such as technology leadership, market domination, or becoming the preferred partner of one’s customers often remain unfulfilled. Many executives attempting to reshape their companies for the future discover to their frustration that substantial expenditures on planning and reorganization generate only trivial differences in performance.

One important factor is the possession of a long-term strategic intent that aligns the actions and beliefs of everyone in the organization toward a challenging goal. Formulating and implementing such a strategic intent requires a particular brand of leadership. This process of organizational leadership through the use of strategic intent can be characterized as the Merlin Factor. It begins with a personal quest to cast off the shackles of old habits of thought in order to reinvent the future. It takes hold in the present through the effort to enroll others as committed participants in the enactment of a new collective purpose. It gathers momentum with each ‘impossible’ obstacle that is overcome. The essence of the Merlin Factor in organizational leadership is simply stated: what you choose for your future is more important than what you know about your past or present capabilities.

The Merlin Factor: A View from the Future

Legend has it that Merlin the Magician was the great King Arthur’s mentor. As depicted in The Once and Future King by T.H. White, Merlin had an uncanny ability to know the future. Occasionally he would give Arthur some insight into just how he knew what was going to happen before it did: “Ah yes.” Merlin said, “How did I know to set breakfast for two? Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time. if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for ordinary people to live. But unfortunately I was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forward from behind…”

Merlin like leaders start with a personal vision of the organization’s future that is predicated on assumptions which violate the shared reality of its existing culture. As other members of the organization make their own commitments to this vision it becomes a strategic intent. The means for fulfilling this strategic intent may be unknown or non-existent at the time it is adopted, as in the following examples:

  • Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (NASA)
  • 48 hours parts service anywhere in the world or Cat pays (Caterpillar)
  • No surprises (Holiday Inns)
  • 10 years of trouble-free operation (Maytag)

Think the Unthinkable

The first element of the Merlin Factor in leadership consists of an a priori personal commitment to a creative purpose. The second task of the Invention stage is to envision that purpose in terms of achievements beyond the prevalent cultural consensus on what is reasonable and possible. This role of the leader demands a willingness to think the unthinkable and mention that which cannot be mentioned in the context of the existing organizational culture. Every organization has taboos whether or not they are recognized as such. Taboo is so powerful because it lies at the very heart of a culture’s basic sense of meaning and order. One of the principal functions of taboo is to set up clear boundaries of behavior. On one side of a boundary certain acts are permitted, and on the other side certain acts are not permitted. As a result topics and items associated with the taboos create the deepest anxiety in a culture’s members. There is a fear that even by discussing, just by acknowledging, that there are certain things that are taboo, we will have committed an action that is prohibited by the action itself.

Thinking about a future that is unthinkable by current standards immediately raises the specter of the practical difficulties separating one from its attainment. Whether those obstacles are technical, financial, or political in nature, they loom very large indeed at the inception of a new strategic intent. Whenever an ambition exceeds the organization’s consensual limits on the future, taboos dictate that, for any number of plausible reasons you can’t get there from here. Cultural barriers to innovation must be overcome within the thinking of the leader before they can be credibly challenged at the organizational level. The first step is to recognize that familiar, accepted ways of thinking about the business are bankrupt with regard to achieving a strategic intent.

Making a personal commitment to change was the first leadership task of the Merlin factor. Formulating a radical vision of the future was the second. The last task of the Invention stage is representing and enacting that vision in order to move it from the realm of private discourse into an explicit strategic intent for the organization. A leader who makes an internal commitment to an ‘impossible’ future becomes an ambassador of that future to the existing culture of the organization. Leaders who use the Merlin Factor, identifying themselves with a particular visionary future, must likewise act on behalf of that future in the circumstances of the present. They represent and speak for the interests of a conjectural uture state of affairs, negotiating with others to bring into being.

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