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"Grass doesn't grow any faster if you pull on it." An interview with Holm Friebe

In his new book “Die Stein-Strategie” (“The Stone Strategy”), Holm Friebe argues in favor of waiting it out: a strategy of wait and see. His book is in response to the prevailing social climate, in which an imperative to take action and to do whatever’s possible often has negative consequences on both a macroeconomic and a personal, individual level. In an interview with STURM und DRANG, the managing director of the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur, or ZIA, proved to be a personable and educated counterpart who converses easily and knowledgeably on topics ranging from management guides to game theory and the Cold War. It is only fitting, then, that the "ZIA" describes its relationship with STURM und DRANG as a “non-aggression pact.”

Holm, your book is helpfully subtitled “On the art of not taking action.” But could you describe for us again the context in which the idea for your appeal not to act emerged?

The book is meant to be understood as a prank within the genre of strategy and management and self-help books; it's a kind of parody that's part of this genre and yet goes against the grain. We're talking about books that are trying to incite us finally to do something, to get up off our butts. And they are legion. It has to be noted that it's been en vogue for quite some time in management literature to declare lower life forms – like mice, penguins and even cockroaches – models to be emulated and to then take that and extrapolate it in an oversimplified way and ask something like, “what we can learn from mice, cockroaches and so forth?” So it was only natural for me to take that even further, to an inorganic level, and to ask what we can learn from stones. But as an elaborate joke stretched over 200 pages it would have been pretty tedious and long! The serious content here is that all these books and their ideology are part of a certain social climate that values action over prudent waiting and perseverance. There is an imperative of action and of constant change, and you have to go with the flow. I really did see a gap there, one that can be argued throughout the entire book, namely why this option often remains so under-discussed, and that it's possible to argue that it's preferable in many situations not to act and not to be the first and not to be “proactive”, to use that buzzword.

A guide to non-action also necessitates a historical sketch of the radicalized imperative to act.

Exactly. In management theory you can pinpoint the start pretty precisely with Andrew Grove, the Intel chief who came up with the saying, “only the paranoid survive”. That might be true for the computer chip market, where you really are talking about a disruptive field, but that motto was then applied to all industries. And Tom Peters, a major pioneer in management theory, argues around the same time – this is the end of the '80s – that excellent managers have a “bias for action” – decision-oriented movers who say, “this is the direction we're going in”, even if the decision turns out to be wrong; the main thing is that some kind of action was taken, and that you were quicker to act than the others. The main thing is the whole system is animated to action. That was a good fit in a time of disruptive, fundamental change, when digitization was first starting to appear on people's radars. Then the idea of change management got big: the idea that you could in fact accomplish a lot by restructuring a company – leaving no stone unturned. In that view, an outstanding CEO is distinguished by the fact that he truly leaves no facet of the company untouched. With a bit of hindsight, today we can say: It didn't actually accomplish all that much, and particularly, it's not always the right prescription. Often the opposite is true, that is, not opportunistically chasing every trend. As it turns out, it caused a big stir but after all the dust settled, not as much was accomplished as people thought.

Since you brought up the CEO as a figure – in your book you also write about Rainald Goetz’s fictional CEO Johann Holtrop, who is pathologically action-biased.

Goetz calls him a “decisionmaking hysteric”. A very nice description. We also talk about “top decisionmakers”. The deciding seems to be the real quality. The more that gets decided, the better. Independent of how good the decisions are, at least decisions were made. This is the polar-opposite position to that of the “fence-sitter” or “procrastinator” – the worst thing you can call a manager or politician. We need to recalibrate the scales here! Maybe there's a good side to fence-sitting and hesitating, we shouldn't make them pejoratives out of hand.

As a negative example in the cultural sphere, you mention the author Wolfgang Koeppen…

OK, that's a whole other field of course. Here the thin line is very clear between ditherers and morbid procrastinators, of which Koeppen was one. He became increasingly embroiled in a kind of self-deception, and kept telling his publisher, Siefried Unseld, again and again for twenty years that his novel was nearly complete. He put an amazing amount of energy into perpetuating this fiction to himself and others. That’s of course the dangerous kind of procrastination that plunges us into depression. Other good-humored procrastinators and non-doers in the arts include, for example, Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger – although new Salinger stories have been leaked recently. But anyway, after three books – “The Catcher in the Rye” and two slim volumes of stories – he announced he wanted nothing more to do with the world and stopped publishing. And in doing that, he nurtured the myth. Everyone wondered what could be behind it, behind this silence. That illustrates that not acting, not communicating and not producing can be an effective artistic strategy, once you have convinced the world that you have something to say, or would have something to say, and then the silence becomes meaningful. This idea is taken to the extreme with Marcel Duchamp, who invented the readymade and with it established a whole new genre in modern art of the 20th century. Then he put his hands in his lap and did nothing in New York but play chess, until the silence around him became so deafening and provocative that Joseph Beuys couldn't help himself from performing an “action” entitled “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp Is Overrated”. That's how powerful silence can be in art.

What are some examples of intelligent waiting in the world of business?

One really nice example, who you wouldn't necessarily think of, is Steve Jobs. People remember him as someone who had an incredible sense of the possible: things the world needed but didn't yet know it needed. Visionary and forward-looking. But there was a period at the end of the '90s when Jobs had just returned to Apple, and had achieved the turnaround with the first colorful iMacs. That really started to put computer manufacturer Apple back on track, as a brand for designers and architects. But that would have been too small a niche in the PC market in the long term to prosper sustainably. In that situation, Jobs was asked what his strategy was, and in response – and this is what's so remarkable – he didn't issue any nebulous pronouncements or rallying cries. He leaned back and said, “We wait for the next big thing”. You have to have some chutzpah to tell the analysts, “we can't do anything right now, our hands are tied so we're gonna sit back and wait”. In fact, the next big thing was MP3 and Napster, and there was a small opening for a completely new device segment. Then the iPod ultimately paved the way for Apple in very different consumer segments and made it the most valuable brand in the world – with the iPhone and iPad that followed. But that was not foreseeable at the time and no one could have known! And to say in that context, “we're gonna hold back here and conserve our resources, we're sure to come up with something a little further down the road” – that requires an incredible amount of self-discipline and wisdom. It's no coincidence that Jobs was interested in Buddhism. That really is something you can learn very well from Zen. There's the concept of wu wei – action through inaction. It doesn't mean not acting at all as a matter of principle, but rather waiting for things to start happening on their own.

The essence of the stone strategy?

Absolutely. This is where we find its philosophical superstructure. I'd like to point out that some things – especially complex social systems – possess an inherent logic that is often smarter than the people who contribute to it, and above they all have their own rhythm, their own time. You can't always accelerate things, and when you try to find a shortcut, it often ends up having the opposite effect. There's a nice saying (in German): Grass doesn't grow any faster if you pull on it. That's valid for many organizations, governments, companies and brands. Often they have evolved for many years; certain things become routine and almost take on a life of their own. The system knows where it wants to go. And the only problem is people who try to willfully pull it in a different direction. In his book “Antifragile”, Nassim Taleb speaks of a “naive interventionism”, i.e. the idea that you see a problem, tackle it head-on and undertake big measures. You try to make things better. That kind of thing often backfires, because it completely bypasses the inherent logic of systems.

You write that the stone strategy can be better leveraged from a position of power. A cashier at Aldi won't get very far with prudent waiting.

Everything is easier from a position of power.

How is that?

The prime example of waiting it out from a position of power is of course Angela Merkel, who practiced this very successfully in the last legislative period and the election campaign. You get the feeling she's completely invulnerable and is becoming more and more similar to Helmut Kohl, in the sense that nothing sticks to her – nearly majestically. She has also been accused, by sociologist Ulrich Beck among others, of being a chancellor of hesitation, of dilatory action. Peer Steinbrück (Social Democratic chancellor candidate) echoed the accusation, but it didn't stick, because people have realized that it is a smart strategy to see how much time you have to act and to delay being pinned down for as long as possible, rather than setting things in motion by acting hastily out of ideological conviction.

And what does the stone strategy have to offer beyond the politics of strength and “Merkiavellianism?”

Holm Friebe enjoying the majestic calm of the inorganicHolm Friebe enjoying the majestic calm of the inorganic

Well, the underdogs have the game-theoretical advantage that they have nothing to lose except for their lives. The essence of strategy lies in pinning yourself down and stubbornly committing to a specific strategy. If you think of the stone strategy as the art of being stubborn, then the underdogs can work with hunger strikes or sit-ins or play dumb while actually deploying all of their talents. It gives them a resource that lends them a certain strength.

To actuate their stance, doesn't every stone strategist need people with a strong action bias who run the show while he sits back quietly not doing things?

Yes, certainly, and you have that in politics with all the undersecretaries. That's why as a governing top politician you don't have all that much to do at the end of the day, except to identify which accent you really want to set that's not business as usual. This can happen if the configuration has arrived at a point where you can actually change course with minimal intervention. That brings us back to Asia. Around the turn of the millennium, when it was starting to be trendy for managers to dabble in Asian philosophy – Confucius for managers and so on – François Jullien made a distinction between occidental and oriental concepts of efficacy. The Western concept is based on abstraction and modeling. We make a model of the world for ourselves and adopt a plan that we implement against the resistant forces of the world. The Asian model starts by observing the situation, the terrain – this is called “xing” – and the inherent potential of that situation – or “shi”. It has to be deciphered, like a golfer analyzing a green to see how the lines and slopes run. Once you have diligently and thoroughly studied it, a minimal effort is all that's required to really make a difference. If you apply that to leadership, it would of course also entail considering the psychological motivations of every individual in the system. What do they want? What do they want to achieve? And how can these things be integrated?

If you look at the social context in which “The Stone Strategy” appears, you might ask yourself: Who today can afford not to act, when we're supposed to keep moving at all times? There's scene in the TV series “Girls”,in which the main character Hannah Horvath is shown an empty frame on the wall during a job interview: Inside the frame are the words, “This is your comfort zone”, and outside and two meters above it are the words, “This is where the magic happens”. The idea that workers have to be brought outside of their comfort zone – or also the talk about the “entrepreneurial self” (Ulrich Bröckling), about “proactivity” and the installation of bureaucratic control mechanisms like target agreements and evaluations, which are supposed to lead to more activity - doesn't that make prudent waiting impracticable in real life?

You describe one of the main reasons I wrote “The Stone Strategy”. There's a whole slew of guides that tell you to “reinvent yourself” and that nourish a general climate of lifelong learning, which holds that “when you tread water, you fall behind” – we're all familiar with these sayings. They form an ideological superstructure, a moral imperative on the individual. And the individual feels like they're never good enough and like they should actually be doing more and more. And in that sense, you really can ask yourself: What can we learn from stones? They don't reinvent themselves as flowers or butterflies every day; they only move when they have to. When the forces acting upon them become too strong. They change their shape when they have to. In a riverbed, they are worn round…

…and they don't engage in any self-branding, either.

Naturally, the book is also meant to be tongue-in-cheek, with a certain irony that shouldn't be taken too seriously. But then again, it should be. The ideology exists for sure. We live in incredibly accelerated times, in the midst of a galloping, dramatically worsening transformation; everything is getting faster and faster. And if you examine that critically, however, you realize it's not necessarily true at all! You can also tell the story quite differently. Of course, there are areas in which acceleration exists. CPU performance is becoming increasingly fast, for example, but that's relatively isolated. Many other areas of everyday life are changing in ways that are anything but dramatic; instead it's more like a very peaceful, slow-moving river. Much of what surrounds us still comes from the 18th and 19th centuries. If you really go looking for innovations, there's a debate going on in the U.S. right now that we have too little innovation, and then only in the Internet area; after that there's nothing for a long time. If you compare that to what was happening a hundred years ago, you really can say that innovations changed our lives on a broad front – starting with plumbing, electricity, transportation, railroads, all the way to communication, the radio and telephone. Back then, people had much more legitimate reason to say they lived in times of dynamic change than is the case today. Matthias Horx reduces this to the word “Gegenwartseitelkeit” – the vanity of the present, the desire to live in times when things are dramatically changing, escalating, exploding takes precedence over the actual fact of this being so.

You emphasize in your book that, in spite of all innovation, people actually still love old-fashioned things like teletext and bicycles, and that these things are extremely popular. At the current point in development, you might ask: We have almost everything we need, what should our world look like now? And here you make a case for the term “resilience”, in the sense of that when you shape a business, you actually have to buck the market logic and allow for overlaps, redundancies, and procrastinating and to make these things productive.

In hierarchical cultures, that can only come from the top, that a CEO says, “We're gonna shift into neutral and approach this differently”.

So that would be your appeal?

I don't think it can work any other way. The brave rebel who, like Herman Melville's literary figure Bartleby, says, “I would prefer not to”, who stands up in the meeting and says, “things are so confusing at the moment, let's wait and see”, that guy is going to have a tough time of it as a resistance fighter in an organization. Bartleby ends up starving to death in prison, too. So that can't be a role model. That's why the change actually has to trickle down from the top to the bottom and come about through a change of awareness in top management. Although I'm not naive about that. Much more work is needed to convince people; one book is certainly not going to do it.

What can people do outside of work? You don't seem to be a big fan of slackerdom or the new idleness.

I tended to leave that part out, since relearning how to do that is more of a kind of a privatistic and mental hygiene technique. It's not enough that we learn once again how to do nothing in our spare time by way of compensation. You have to enter the belly of the beast, where this ‘actionism’ arises, i.e. to slow down in business, politics and the media, and question the unquestioned consensus of the actionist imperative.

But don't you also sympathize with the slacker attitude? Here, despite the passivity, you often find really high standards in terms of education, artistic production, or even business start-ups. In your book you quote (the German band) Tocotronic, too…

As far as I know Dirk von Lowtzow (Tocotronic frontman, Editor's note), he's a thoroughly Protestant worker like me. As an artistic standpoint, I find it interesting that he idealizes failure and surrender. As a practical attitude towards life, I can't get behind it. If you can avoid failure, you should do so. Preferable is a culture of letting things be, with which you inflict less damage as well. There's an interesting debate right now in the humanities about passivity, according to which it could be just another form of being productive, by allowing things to take their time and accepting that passivity is a necessary component of productivity. We can learn that from slackers, too. But: Someone whose slacking is purely self-centered and they don't even end up making movies about it, we will never perceive that person unless we visit them at home. Passivity should eventually lead to action. In art, this idea is more acceptable, but it should also be cultivated in companies, where nothing is gained by basing everything on efficiency. I think the units of value-creating activity can be narrowed down to a few minutes a day in the knowledge society. The rest is compulsory, system-dependent folklore. That has to be accepted. The only thing that's important is that these few minutes be free of disruption; and protecting them is a high art. I think the whole obsession with work hours is an anachronism. What you actually pay people for is showing their face for a certain amount of time at the company, without being able to control what they do there. This fixation on demonstrating performance by way of presence is certainly one abuse that we could really remedy.

We can only hope that your book won't be misunderstood as yet another call to action. Concepts like the Modern Life School (in Hamburg) or Tom Hodgkinson's Idler Academy have an action-bias aspect to them, too, though, if everybody goes running there after quitting time.

I would say so, too. The same thing goes for all the guides on being idle, which people buy because they realize there's a problem. And then they gather dust on the nightstand because you can't find time to read them. Buying the book then becomes an alibi activity. You stand there at the register and think, "yeah, that would be nice if I could do it." It's like watching cooking shows instead of cooking yourself: a purely compensatory act.


Photos © Holm Friebe

    Till Huber