Strategy lessons from a science genius

David Marr was one of the most influential neuroscientists of the last 50 years.

In 1982, he wrote a book called “Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information”.

As you can tell from the title, he wasn’t a great writer. But he was a great thinker.

Part of the book separates the analysis of systems into a hierarchy of 3 layers.

The top layer is computational – what function is the system serving?

The second layer is algorithmic – How can the function be implemented? What are the inputs and outputs, and what is the algorithm that transforms one into the other?

The bottom layer is physical – how can the algorithm be represented physically?


The Tinkertoy Computer












For example:

You might create a system to win a game of noughts and crosses.

Different people might come up with different approaches.

But even if two systems have the same computational goal and the same algorithmic approach, they can be physically different. In 1975, two MIT students built a working computer made out of children’s Tinkertoys. It plays noughts and crosses using exactly the same algorithm as the most advanced software program does today.

How does a tic-tac-toe-playing Tinkertoy computer relate to modern business strategy?

Imagine you’re starting a new company. Where do you begin?

Well, here are 3 questions:

  1. What function do you want the company to serve?
  2. What’s the smartest way to achieve that function – what will go in to the company and what will it produce?
  3. So what will you need, physically, to carry out that transformation?

There are likely to be a few constraints on your answers to at least one of these questions, but you can see how the answer to one question impacts on the others.

Obviously, it’s not just new companies who need answers to these sorts of questions. Smart companies re-examine their strategic goals.

But whether your business is young or old, the answers to these questions provide a useful framework for your strategy.

If you need help articulating answers to questions like these, email Chris. A clear Vision Statement can answer the first question. A Mission Statement, the second. In the past year, we’ve helped a mediatech firm, a children’s retailer, a fashion house and a cosmetics brand clarify and communicate their strategy.