7 sticky statements for effortless strategic thinking

To be frank with you, I don’t really say anything new in these “news”letters.

New to you possibly, but not new to the world at large.  Now this isn’t because I’m uniquely unoriginal, but rather because when it comes to strategy, there isn’t anything new to be said.  Not by me, not by anyone.

It sounds crazy but it’s true, because strategy is not a field like physics where “new knowledge” is being added all the time: instead it’s a set of static dynamics which always were, always will be, and can only be observed, not created.

All business writers – myself included – are like a team of zoologists looking at an elephant and writing about it.  We can come up with all sorts of different explanations and perspectives, but when all’s said and done the elephant is just an elephant.  It never changes.

And neither does strategy.

There is however one field of “innovation” in strategy.  Not innovation of theory, which is impossible in my view, but rather innovation of articulation.  In other words:

Saying old things in new ways.

This is actually much more important than having “original” insights because it helps ever more people grasp the fundamentals – a process which has barely begun.  What’s the point of teasing out some arcane technicality when almost no founder grasps something as basic as “value creation”?

Nailing the obvious stuff is the key here, not burrowing into trivia.

This then is mostly what I try to help you with in this newsletter (and my book No Bullshit Strategy).  Getting to a point of such ingrained familiarity with this stuff that you don’t have to “think about” about strategy, you just do it.  Because THAT’S the goal here – not to be a “strategy expert”, but rather a person who just does strategic stuff as a matter of course.

To that end I’ve been working on a weird little project.

My idea is to try and boil the most important strategy principles down into elegant phrases which are self explanatory, and moreover memorable – so they’ll stick in your head and be top of mind whenever you’re thinking about a project.

It’s kinda like the way that certain Biblical or Shakespearean lines have become part of common speech, and through this have sculpted the philosophical bedrock upon which we operate every day.  It’s the same thing – albeit with slightly more humble aspirations.

I’ve only just started, and am a long way off nailing it, but here’s my initial stab.

(Please note I didn’t come up with all of these, however I have no idea who did come up with the ones I’ve nicked – so apologies for the lack of attribution)

Seven Sticky Strategy Statements.

1. “Sell something people want, but they can’t get anywhere else.”

It’s not the most elegant thing in the world, but for my money it’s the snappiest way of summarising the game of strategy, and indeed business itself.  I mean this is it.  Literally, there’s nothing else.  Answer this riddle and you win.  Therefore keeping this top of mind at all times is THE simplest way to be effortlessly strategic.

2. “Only is better than best.”

A much snappier one here, and alas not one I can take credit for.  But still it’s crucial because it nips in the bud the most obvious and common non-strategic behaviour – namely trying to compete directly with your competitors by being “better” than them.  This feels so natural that most never question it, but it is only when you move beyond it that, paradoxically, you can actually get competitive advantage.

3. “People don’t care what you do, they care what you do for them.”

Not quite as poetic as “people don’t care what you do, they care why you do it”, but to be honest it’s much more important.  The little flip that occurs here is the flip from product to value; from defining your business by what it “makes” to the effect of what it makes.  It’s also the flip from operational to strategic thinking, so essential for tuning your mind to the right frequency.

4. “Lead with imagination. End with analysis.”

This one serves to remind you that you cannot reason yourself to competitive advantage linearly, and that instead you must inject some creativity and randomness into your thinking early.  This is not to say you should cease to be rigorous – not at all – but rather you should use that rigour to check your thinking, instead of generating it – thus ending with analysis.

5. “Don’t seek a strategy. Seek a secret.”

You’ll call any old nonsense a “strategy”.  Or an “insight”.  But you won’t degrade the word “secret” the same way, and that makes it supremely useful.  Because it is only a strategy that contains material worthy of this label that you should be pursuing, since it implies genuinely uncommon thought.  Use this as your yardstick of quality.

6. “Lose nothing, gain nothing.”

Some would say you gain nothing without risk, but I actually think in the strategy game it’s more extreme than that: you can nothing without loss.  Without sacrifice.  For you to claim new territory in the market, which can be yours and yours alone, there can only be one way: to give up something that others hold dear.  This maxim will remind you to check whether you are truly doing this.

7. “Goals are questions, strategies are answers.”

Finally we have the simplest way to establish whether your strategy is even a strategy at all – namely by checking whether it has the quality of a final answer, or if it merely raises more questions.  Anything that raises further questions of how it is to be done is a goal, not a strategy.  But a strategy has an air of finality about it, which provokes no questions, but instead simply “let’s do it”.


What do you think?

Do you have any improvements?  Can you give me any more?  I only just started thinking about this, so I’m keen to improve them.

Let me know, and when I have more updates, I’ll share then with one and all.

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