06 Jan 2014

Rediscovering the Forgotten Art of Strategy

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Education | Agency | Branding

I envy my colleagues in Creative.  They get to wear just about anything they want.  And everyone else understands exactly what they do.

But try telling someone you’re a strategist.

So much of our business landscape is tangible and visible.  Every day we meander through dashingly designed Web sites.  We admire new, strikingly beautiful logos.  We eagerly flip through glossy magazines to ogle the next outrageous fashion ad.

But it’s a rare day indeed when you hear someone gloat, “Have you seen our new strategy?”

And that’s okay.  Strategies are meant to be behind-the-scenes characters.  If a strategy were a person (as opposed to, say, a tree), it would more likely be a C.I.A. operative than a car salesman.  Strategy likes to work behind the scenes, gathering intelligence, and waiting for the right moment to move.  Like the characters on the hit show Criminal Minds, strategy understands the subtleties – and even the uneasy transformations – between good guys and bad guys.

Beware of misguided notions of “strategy.”  How many of us shudder at the thought of the “strategic planning process” from the old days?  You remember … each department manager gets a template and is asked to fill in sales goals, new product initiatives, blah, blah, blah, for the upcoming year, only to have the completed template sent back by a superior with the comment, “Be more aggressive!”

Strategy is often misinterpreted.  “Double sales” is not a strategy, nor is “expand internationally.”  These are goals.  And don’t get me wrong.   Goals are good.  Where would Jack and Jill have been without a goal?  They would have been wandering around aimlessly searching for a hill, perhaps with buckets, perhaps not, until they became tired or lost – which would not have made for a powerful nursery rhyme.

Instead, they had a goal – to get up that hill, fetch themselves a nice, refreshing pail of water, and return home.  But they had no strategy, and that’s why poor Jack broke his crown and Jill suffered a back ailment that would plague her for the rest of her life.

Had Jack and Jill carved out a strategy for not only their ascent up the hill, but for their more challenging descent, their outcome would have been much happier. 

How many businesses have goals but no strategies?

And make no mistake -- strategies are not products, or prices, or promotions.  These are tactics – implementations of the strategy.  For a while, strategists were besmirched – or worse – by critics who claimed that they didn’t care a whit for implementation.  The tide turned from Michael Porter’s classic 1980 book Competitive Strategy to Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan’s more recent 2002 bestseller, Execution.  Perhaps unconsciously, companies became obsessed with tactics at the expense of strategy.  Witness the explosion of new features, service package choices, and sales channel options being introduced in the wireless services industry today (not to mention the all-out-war being waged through television and digital advertising).   That’s execution, all right.

But in the race to implement increasingly risky tactics, has the art of strategy been mummified?  It is a slippery slope indeed to compete purely on execution.  We’ve all heard the woeful tales of “good strategy, bad execution,” but I wonder if we’ll soon start hearing more observations of “interesting execution, but where’s the strategy?”

Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots’ strategist extraordinaire, delivered the best example of pure strategy I’ve seen.  One game, when faced with the prospect of playing a high-scoring opponent on the opponent’s home turf in front of tens of thousands of partisan fans, Belichick hatched a simple strategy:  Keep the ball out of the other team’s hands.  That’s a strategy.  The tactic?  Run the ball … and keep running it.  This strategy, from a coach blessed with one of the game’s hottest-throwing quarterbacks in Tom Brady.

The lessons from this kind of strategic thinking are profound.  Belichick crafted a strategy that recognized not only competitor strengths and a highly turbulent environment, but also one that drew upon his own team’s less recognized assets.  Of course, this strategy required Belichick to ask his running backs to step up and shoulder an important burden (and hold on to the ball).  And the strategy demanded perfect execution, which was delivered – and got them to the AFC Championship game.

But the outcome would have been much different if the team just tried to execute on its most recognized strengths.  Sure, the Patriots may have scored a lot of points, but they may have still lost the game by trading touchdowns with an equally high-scoring opponent.

Your business strategy might also benefit from tapping into less obvious corporate strengths – ones that exploit the weakness of your competition.  Rather than trying to out-duel them with the usual weapons such as price, advertising and promotions, how can you deploy your lesser known but competitively potent weapons to spearhead a much more innovative strategy?

Analyzing the landscape.  Anticipating the response.  Defining the successful outcome.  Perhaps that’s what I can say the next time someone asks me what a strategist does for a living.

And had Jack or Jill been a strategist, who knows how happily their story may have ended?  We might all be customers of their bottled water empire.