Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue forty three of Manufacturing Serendipity, a newsletter which is ordinarily comprised of a bunch of loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
The fortnight’s edition is a little different: the usual collection of links, book and TV recommendations, etc, will be back in abundance next time, but real life got in the way of me preparing this edition, and so I’m sending you this slightly rambling essay instead.
As always, this newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this strange little endeavour you can buy me a coffee 🙂
Back in 2019, I put together a talk for the newly-formed Women in TechSEO group, which was created by my wonderful friend Areej. Today that group has grown to over 5,000 global members(!), but back in July 2019, if I recall correctly, I gave my talk in-person, to around 30 women.
It was a wonderful experience. I’d very recently left Verve Search, and this was my first speaking gig as an independent consultant. Sat facing me, were a group of women who were utterly engaged, and excited to be there.
Whilst I could never have predicted how large that group would become, nevertheless I remember thinking how safe, and supported I felt as a speaker; and excited about how the group might grow and develop in the future.
The talk I gave back in 2019 was called “Playing the Orchestra (or, what the f*ck I think people mean, when they say you need to think more strategically)”. It was very loosely based on an internal training session I’d run when I was at Verve Search, (which Areej had attended); and she asked if I’d do a version of it for her newly-formed meet-up group.
Over the past fortnight, this talk popped up in my head again, thanks to various conversations I’ve been having about “strategy”, or, more accurately – what I think we mean when we talk about “strategy”.
Those conversations led me to believe that some of the things I shared back in 2019, may well be useful and/or relevant to others – hence this essay.
But enough of this rambling intro: grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
What does “Playing the Orchestra” have to do with strategy?
Back in 2019, the process of putting together the talk caused me to disappear down a bunch of rabbit holes. This conversation (which never actually happened) was the first one I disappeared down:
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.
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. Anyway, I came across the quote, and then came across the movie trailer: serendipity (somewhat manufactured).
Like I said above, this conversation between Wozniak and Jobs never actually happened. It’s taken from the trailer of the 2015 Steve Jobs biopic. (Incidentally, when asked about the film, Wozniak said that accuracy comes second to entertainment, but that he enjoyed it nevertheless.)
I elected to use it, because 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).
While I was watching the trailer, something else occurred to me:
In the world of work, we are divided into two classes of people: those who are considered strategic, and those who aren’t.
“Think more strategically” they said…
At various points in my career I’ve been challenged to “think more strategically”.
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 this isn’t something that can be taught.
I resolved to try to figure this stuff out for myself, but twenty years on, I’m still trying to figure it out.
We’ve got problems people…
It strikes me that we have three problems conspiring together to make this unholy mess:
- Strategy is a poorly defined concept
- There’s confusion around the difference between strategy and 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.
When marketing borrowed the language of war…
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:
relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests
and the means of achieving them
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”.
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:
- 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.
- Some people possibly think both of those things?
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.
Why is it that some people seem to think that strategy isn’t something you can teach?
Possibly, the people who think that strategy isn’t something you can teach, think that strategic thinking is a talent as opposed to a skill.
a natural ability to be good at something, without being taught
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 simply one of perception.
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 a strategy or strategically about a tactic (or whatever hideous military language you want to use) 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’?
I think that maybe some of this is about specificity. When people say things like “we need to think more strategically”, this is what I think they mean:
make specific recommendations
that will help a particular company
in a particular market
achieve a defined objective
As such, I wonder if demonstrating “strategic thinking” is more about how you position whatever course of action you’re recommending; and less about the recommendations themselves.
In order to appear more strategic, rather than just making recommendations; first you need to clearly define the problem, and then explain how what you’re recommending helps to solve it.
For example, in the past week, a client asked me to make some recommendations about how they could restructure and grow their internal PR team. I could just have sent a bunch of recommendations to that company, and to be honest, that probably would have been fine.
But rather than do that, I did the following:
- I explained the current structure and the problems associated with it (in this instance it both limited the amount of work which could be delivered, and offered team members little in the way of opportunity for progression)
- I demonstrated how the new structure I was proposing would alleviate those problems (increased output, plus clear paths to progression for team members)
Is this actually an example of either strategic or smart thinking? Honestly, I don’t know; but I suspect that some others might perceive it that way.
And the truth is, that’s what we’re really battling with here – we need our work to be perceived as strategic or smart – whether or not this work is actually is either of these things might not actually be that important.
Perception is reality, right?
Maybe you buy that, maybe you don’t; let’s go back to the talk.
I was still puzzling over what might else might cause people to perceive certain types of thinking as either “strategic” or “smart”, and so I spent a bunch of time trying to find some examples of successful “strategies” (again, it’s possible you’ll consider these tactics, not strategies – hence the inverted commas – ugh, this is tiring isn’t it?), to see if I could find any commonality between them.
As I was doing this, I remembered that actually I’d already explored this topic before – way back in 2012 I wrote this post (the original is no longer live – but thanks to web.archive.org it lives on), and 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 with Jamie Oliver 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.
The problem was these incubators quickly broke down, 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 who both 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.
value ≠ price
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…”
The painting achieved $450.3 million at auction (way above the $100 million they expected).
These stories each concern solving a (reasonably) clearly defined problem – all good so far – but what’s more interesting perhaps, is that the individuals solved these problems in a novel way.
Could novelty be a factor? (i.e. are these stories held up as good examples of either “strategic” or “smart” thinking because the solutions are novel?)
All these people offered up solutions that wouldn’t ordinarily be considered to be within their remit:
- the planner who suggested targeting existing customers with advertising, rather than new customers
- 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 therefore, that in some instances, when people ask us to think more strategically what they’re really asking for is a novel solution. As such, an invitation to “think strategically” might actually be an invitation to explore options or potential solutions that ordinarily wouldn’t be considered within your remit.
So where are we at?
I think that if you want to be seen as more “strategic” (or possibly just “smart”), it might be helpful to:
- Consider specificity – i.e. try to make specific recommendations, that will help this particular company, in this particular market, achieve a defined objective.
- Consider how you’re positioning whatever it is you’re recommending. Clearly define the problem and then explain how what you’re recommending solves it.
- Consider whether or not what you’re really being asked for is a novel or otherwise unusual solution – i.e. something which might ordinarily be considered outside of your remit.
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