Last week I spent a bunch of time thinking about receiving and giving advice; and this week I was all-consumed with thoughts about strategy. I had the opportunity to speak about strategic thinking at a newly-formed meet up group (incidentally, if you are a woman working in SEO I strongly recommend you join).

The process of putting together the talk caused me to disappear down a bunch of rabbit holes. This was the first:

You’re not an engineer.
You’re not a designer.
You can’t put a hammer to a nail.
I built the circuit board.
The graphical interface was stolen.

So how come, 10 times in a day, I read Steve Jobs is a genius?
What do you do?

Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.

This conversation between Wozniak and Jobs never happened. It’s taken from the trailer of the 2015 Steve Jobs biopic. (Wozniak said of the film, that accuracy comes second to entertainment, but that he enjoyed it nevertheless.)

I think it illustrates how, as a society, we have a tendency to value the contributions of those considered ‘strategic’ or ‘smart’ (in this case Jobs), above those who are doing the doing (in this case Wozniak).

How did I come across this? I don’t really know. I think I was just trying to come up with a title for my talk… Possibly I was googling quotes about strategy. Regardless I came across the quote, googled the quote itself, and then came across the trailer. Serendipity (possibly somewhat manufactured).

While I was watching the trailer, something occurred to me:

In the business world we are divided into two classes of people: those who are strategic & those who aren’t

Troubling, isn’t it?

At various points in my career I’ve been challenged to ‘think more strategically’. (On reflection, I think that what this really indicated was that my boss at the time considered me to be second-class – i.e. one of those people who just aren’t strategic.)

When I asked what was meant by: ‘think more strategically’, I was told: “You think too tactically, we need strategy, not tactics.”

I remember thinking at the time that I really wasn’t clear on the difference between the two. However, not wishing to get into a circular semantic discussion, I instead asked for some help developing in this area.

This request was met with a blank stare. “Strategy isn’t something you can teach” was the response.

Something of a thorny problem isn’t it?

I was being told that I needed to have more of this mystical quality (the ability to think strategically), but that apparently it isn’t something that can be taught.

I resolved to try to figure this stuff out for myself… Twenty years on, I’m still trying to figure this stuff out.

As I was putting this talk together I remembered conversations like the one above. It seems to me that conversations like that aren’t uncommon (at the meet up I asked people to raise their hands if they too had experienced something similar, and almost all the hands in the room were raised).

It strikes me that we have a couple of problems conspiring together to make this unholy mess, namely:

  • Strategy is a poorly defined concept
  • There’s confusion around what people mean by strategy versus tactics
  • There’s a perception that strategy can’t be taught

I decided to explore those problems a little further, and disappeared down a few more rabbit holes. I began by doing a little research on how and when the concept of strategy (in a business or marketing context) came about.

Prior to the 1950s, strategy was a term used almost exclusively by the military; until Peter Drucker helped popularise the concept of ‘strategic management’.

At that point in time, there was a wholesale import of military terminology – in effect, marketing borrowed the language of war:

we support strategies with tactics, and target consumers with campaigns

The problem in particular with the terms: ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ is that they are conceptual. What’s the difference between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’?

Actually, even the dictionary isn’t sure:


strategic

relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests
and the means of achieving them

tactical

showing adroit planning; aiming at an end beyond the immediate action


Is it any wonder people confuse strategy and tactics?

Thinking more about this, I came to a further realisation. I suspect that the term ‘strategic’ has somewhere along the way become synonymous with ‘smart’.


smart

having or showing a quick-witted intelligence


Someone could of course be both strategic and smart, but they aren’t the same thing.

I felt like this could go some way to explaining some of the problems inherent in any conversations about strategic thinking – essentially this lack of a clear definition has lead to the perception of strategy being wildly different from person to person.

Some people think that there’s a clearer demarcation between strategy and tactics than those dictionary definitions above indicate.

Some people think that strategic = smart.

But I remained puzzled. When a concept is poorly defined of course it makes it necessarily harder to teach, but it still shouldn’t be impossible. All you need do is come up with a clearer definition.

So why is it that some people seem to think that strategy isn’t something you can teach? What’s going on there?

It occurred to me that it’s possible that the people who think that strategy isn’t something you can teach, think that strategic thinking is a talent as opposed to a skill.


talent

a natural ability to be good at something, without being taught

skill

the ability to do an activity or job well, because you have practised it


I’m not sure that I believe in talent. In my experience, the people who are described as ‘talented’ by others, in reality, practise constantly.

I believe that thinking strategically is a skill not a talent.

It’s something you can learn, and, if you practise, you can become great.

Trouble is, even if you, like me, accept that thinking strategically is a skill rather than a talent, we’ve still got problems. How does strategic thinking differ from tactical thinking?

On this point, dear reader, I’m stuck.

My instinct is, that the difference between strategy and tactics is one of perception. For example, you could elect to devise an SEO strategy, even though there are many people out there who consider SEO a tactic; you could elect to devise a social media strategy even though there are many people out there who consider social media a tactic; you could elect to devise an advertising strategy even though there are many people out there who consider advertising a tactic.

Possibly somewhat lazily I’m electing to opt out of that particular debate altogether. I suspect endless discussions around what constitutes a tactic and what constitutes a strategy aren’t going to get us far anyway.

More importantly, I think that teaching yourself to think strategically, whether you’re thinking strategically about strategy or strategically about tactics is really valuable.

But there’s still the issue of defining what we mean when we say strategy.

What do people mean, when they say we need to ‘think more strategically’?

To help answer this question, I spent a bunch of time digging out examples of successful strategies (or, it occurs to me now, possibly they are examples of smart thinking).

As I was doing this, I remembered that actually I’d already explored this topic before – way back in 2012, I wrote this post.

I found a bunch of great examples there:

The planner that piped up…

AMV.BBDO were being asked to pitch a TV campaign for Sainsbury’s. Their objective was to drive an additional £3 billion in revenue over a two year period.

Pretty tall order, huh?

How the hell do you go about delivering £3 billion in revenue? Get new customers? How? Ideas were being thrown around, criticised and rejected – the pressure was on.

Then a planner piped up:

I’ve been doing some calculations. We don’t need new customers at all. If we get every existing customer to spend an additional £1.85 every time they visit, then we’ll hit our revenue target.

Instantly the messaging of the advertising campaign changed. Instead of focusing on attracting new customers the focus was brought back to existing ones.

They recognised that most supermarket customers were stuck in a rut or ‘sleep shopping’ – buying the same things week in, week out (and of course therefore – eating the same food every week).

They hooked up the chubby-tongued mockney and the ‘try something new today’ campaign was born.

They delivered that £3 billion revenue increase in one year, rather than two.

Building incubators from 4×4 parts

An international development charity raised money to provide incubators for premature babies in developing countries.

Problem was they quickly broke and no one knew how to fix them.

However, someone noticed that every village seemingly had an old, clapped out 4×4 vehicle which, against all odds, still seemed to function just fine. Clearly the expertise was there on hand to fix up and maintain old 4x4s.

So, they built incubators out of 4×4 parts so the people there would be able to maintain and fix the incubators themselves.

When reading that old post of mine, another story popped into my head:

The last da Vinci

In 2017, auction house Christie’s had the opportunity to sell a painting.

This painting (purportedly created by Leonardo da Vinci) was expected to sell for $100 million.

There are very few people on the planet want to own, and are able to afford a piece like this, but interestingly, Christie’s didn’t just target those people. Instead, they targeted the masses. They deliberately targeted people who could not afford to buy that painting.

They toured the piece like a circus act, with exhibits in Hong Kong, San Francisco, London and New York.

But why?

value ≠ price

I think that they realised that the painting would achieve a higher price at auction if people who could not afford it valued it highly.

Christie’s realised that those buyers would pay an extra few million for the privilege of owning a painting that was iconic…

Ian Leslie

The painting achieved $450.3 million at auction.

Reading these stories again, I realised something.

Some of the most compelling stories about strategy (or smart thinking) are really stories about people who offered up solutions that wouldn’t ordinarily be within their remit:

  • the planner who suggested targeting existing customers rather than new ones
  • the charity who found a new way to built incubators for premature babies
  • the person at the auction house who employed mass-media tactics rather than personalisation

It occurs to me, that potentially, when people ask us to ‘think more strategically’ perhaps that’s what they’re really asking us to do.

It’s possible, perhaps, that an invitation to ‘think strategically’ might actually be an invitation to:

stray far from your lane

& that, I think, is a thoroughly delicious idea.

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