Why strategy should be seen as a soap opera

The work of a strategist is a never-ending process that is constantly evolving as new problems occur and unforeseen dramas take place, Tracey Follows suggests.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Last week, the planning community gathered on the South Bank for the Account Planning Group’s annual Big Thinking on Strategy conference.

This year’s theme was "Strategy: where has it come from and where is it going?".

Big thinking doesn’t get bigger than "strategy" – a big word promising big things. But does it still deliver?

It seems that strategy is big business these days. So it is indeed a paradox that, at a time when strategy seems to be a burgeoning discipline and more in demand than ever, there is also an incessant criticism of it and what it can realistically deliver.

The rise of the discerning customer and the fragmentation of media have arguably made "culture" more important than strategy. As Strategy& (then Booz & Company) said in 2011, anyone can copy your strategy, but no-one can copy your culture.

Part of the criticism of planning seems to be around the "strategy gap". Back in the 90s, in the world of Michael Porter and other famous business strategists, it was seen as advantageous to distinguish between strategy formulation and strategy implementation.

However, this separation, along with ever-increasing fragmentation, digitisation and globalisation, has meant that strategy has become so complex and uncertain that we have effectively rendered the term useless.

In fact, in his book The Lords Of Strategy, Walter Kiechel III claims: "There have been no big new strategy ideas since 1995." Ouch.

Advice from urban planning

There’s a maxim in the world of urban planning that if you let your city be planned by bakers, you will end up with a city of bakeries. And if you have a culture – as we do now in advertising and communications – that isn’t clear on the value of strategy or even whether it is still useful and relevant, what kind of industry are we going to have?

The speakers at the event tried to tackle just that. What kind of strategy and what type of strategists do we want if we are to create the right kind of future for our industry? What is our strategy for strategy?

The keynote speaker, Sir Lawrence Freedman (whose book Strategy: A History is a tour de force on the nature and history of the discipline), spoke wisely about the limitations of viewing strategy as just a battle of cunning against an opponent. He made the point that, sometimes, the objective is not to overcome or defeat the other; sometimes, it is merely to survive.

We now live in the world of the unreasonable consumer - in which trade-offs no longer exist

That’s where coalitions come in handy: you need to think more about who you need to partner with than who you need to defeat. He stressed the importance of empathy, in being able to "get into the minds of your opponent or your partner", and suggested that if you can’t do this, you aren’t doing strategy.

Because, in Freedman’s words, strategy is understanding your "pot of power" – your resources, assets, reputation and competencies. Only by understanding your own and others’ pots of power can you "get more out of a situation than your pot of power would have suggested". That’s why he defines strategy as the art of creating power.

Google’s Ben Malbon spoke about how the strategists he now works with are "product managers": they combine technology, user experience and business in their roles as chief executives of a product. Their aim is simple: "to make things that people really want". And all of their work, from prototyping to launch, fixates on that objective.

Adam Morgan echoed that with his thesis that we now live in the world of the unreasonable consumer – in which trade-offs no longer exist; in which a new generation want their needs fulfilled in an immediate way. Strategists, as a result, should now be looking to solve unreasonable combinations of requests and requirements, since "we are all now strategists for Uber’s children", designing for a consumer who wants it all.

Is strategy great work?

A prevailing theme was the need to get back to "doing" and not use strategy as a delaying tactic for taking action. Russell Davies disagreed with Bridget Angear that great strategy leads to great work, saying "great strategy is great work… just start doing the work", but Malcolm White reminded us of the frustrations we often feel when told by a client: "Forget the strategy; can you just do some ads?"

The future of strategy is bound up with two things. First, the need to embrace what Malbon termed "emergent thinking" – the messy, real-time, intuitive strategy that is in and of the real world, constantly shaping and reshaping as reality itself does. Second, that we should think about strategy as a never-ending process. Actually, we should start strategy where we usually think it stops.

Freedman summed this up with his analogy of strategy not as a story but as a script; not as a three-act play but as a soap opera. Even when we arrive at our intended objective successfully, new problems arise, unforeseen dramas take hold and new characters come in. That is the time to adapt, take new decisions, imagine new scenarios. It’s a continuous, flexible, ongoing process.  

In this brave new world of unreasonableness, em­powered consumers, part­nerships, technology and uncertainty, the lesson is that strategy doesn’t preordain or precede action but jogs alongside our action, informing and directing us as we go. Strategy does not stop. And neither should we.

Tracey Follows is the chair of the Account Planning Group

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