The 7 truths driving real strategic thinking

Everyone seems to be doing strategy nowadays. If you want to make a small idea look bigger, you say it's a strategy. If you want your job to seem more important, you put strategy in your title. It starts to make you wonder what strategy really is, writes Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategic officer, AMV BBDO.

Time to reclaim strategy
Time to reclaim strategy

The APG, the body that represents the strategy discipline in the agency world held a conference recently to attempt to rectify that situation, with contributions from luminaries such as Sir Lawrence Freedman, author of a book called 'Strategy', Russell Davies, director of strategy at the Government Digital Service and Guy Murphy, global chief strategy officer at JWT. You get the idea. Lots of people with ideas called strategy or strategy in their title.

Here’s what we learned:

Strategy is an art not a science – it is fundamentally a creative discipline, because it’s about choices, and understanding how others think. The behaviour of those you are up against is defined by how they think.

Strategy is the art of creating power – strategy has a simple purpose, to get more out of a situation than your starting power suggests you should. The big, the strong and the rich usually win. When they don’t, it’s because someone had a better strategy. Simple.

Your strategy should be governed by your start point, not your end point – strategy is about interdependent decision making. Where you end up depends upon how your opponents react. As Mike Tyson said, "Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the mouth".

Strategy is a soap opera, not a drama – we often think of strategies as having a beginning, middle and end. We live and die by the targets we set and no matter the changing circumstances, get punished for missing these objectives. But that’s not strategy, that’s planning. A strategy unfolds constantly over time and creates new outcomes, so objectives must be modified and adapted.

Strategy is something you do, not something you think – strategy is an active process of delivery in changing circumstances. Your strategy should be more like a system than a map.

Many of today’s most compelling strategies resolve trade-offs – the age of opposites is ending and brands that give you two opposite things at the same time attract much of the attention from consumers nowadays. Aldi and Lidl are good examples of this; customers feel that they dramatically resolve the old trade-off between price and quality.

The best strategy for our digital age is usability – forget about persuasion. That was the old world where marketing was easier to do than product or service development. Nowadays, you should be spending your time working out how to make your product or service easier and better than anyone else. And forget about innovation, there are enough great ideas out there, the winners are the ones who put them in people’s hands more easily.

It’s time to reclaim 'strategy' and 'strategic' from tokenistic use in job titles and project names. It’s too important a discipline to be linguistic window dressing.