Are you living by lies

The other day I got an insightful bit of feedback on one of these essays from a client (hi Alan), and it really got me thinking.

He said:

“This is consistent with your philosophy that great strategies are revealed as truths in and of themselves, and not created by the whims of the strategist”

Now although this idea is indeed consistent with my general propaganda, just as he suggested, he actually articulated it in a manner I’d never thought of before, and which I actually think is extremely useful and revealing – thus I wanted to delve into it more here today.

They key phrase there is this:

Strategies are revealed as truths in and of themselves.

In other words, a strategy is nothing more than the acknowledgement of truth, and an appropriate response to it.  The act of “strategising” therefore, is merely a search for truth, and the more successfully you uncover it, the more clearly you see reality, the more effective you will be.

What is striking about this idea – which I find to be completely true in and of itself – is the unspoken implication nested within it: that for the most part we are not operating in accordance with truth, but with lies.

(OK “lies” perhaps sounds a bit pejorative – you could equally say untruths, or falsehoods, or even incorrect information, but hey, “lies” sounds more dramatic, so let’s go with that for the purposes of this essay)

What this means is that we make our decisions based on assumptions which simply aren’t so.  In human affairs this is rife – and I think most of us are aware of it rationally, if not emotionally.  For instance do we in West not conduct our romantic affairs on the basis of a Hollywood narrative that we know, secretly, not to really be true?  Do we not base our political opinions at least in part on a wilful disregard of the valid points of the opposite side?  Do we not all tell ourselves stories about how the world works which, on closer inspection, are simply reflections of our own psyches rather than actual reality?

All of this is totally standard fare, of which we are all guilty.  We act as if such lies were indeed true, and consequently reap a spoiled harvest each and every time.

Businesses also run themselves on lies.  Many of these are basic and easy to spot.  One I routinely find is an unrealistically negative view of the competition – “oh, them, their product tastes like garbage / their brand is so dumb / etc.”.  Of course this is never true.  Any competitor, if they’re doing well, is obviously not useless, and you do yourself no favours if you kid yourself they are.  Like the person with a misguided view of work life, or relationships, you’ll end up seeing your failure as simply “unfair”, rather than being grounded in a truth you’d prefer not to face.

I say all this like it’s easy to discern the truth from lies – but of course it really isn’t.  It’s immensely difficult.

We can see this in the struggle that people have with the concept of “insight”.  Insights are simply truths which are unspoken, or unacknowledged.  Strategy, as we all know, is built on insight – hence why strategy is built on truth.  The trick of course is ensuring that the truth is not only true,  but unspoken too – because that is what makes it powerful.  A pasta brand whose “insight” is “human beings get hungry” may be dealing with a “truth”, but not a very useful one!  To see what is true, but which others do not see, is true art of the discipline.

Want an example?

The other day I stumbled across just such an insight, which really shows the immense power of living by truth, courtesy of the Paddy Power founder, Stewart Kenny.

(I appreciate that a gambling brand may not be the most popular example I could use here, especially in an essay about “truth”, but nonetheless it was too elegant an insight not to share, so let’s put that aside for the moment in service of the larger point)

In a nutshell, he said that they realised that the average return on a £20 bet was £17.50.  Therefore he saw their job as being to provide “£2.50 worth of entertainment” for every £20 spent, and thus they run their company accordingly.

Let’s look at this for a second.  Firstly, is this true?  Of course.  Betting doesn’t earn money, it costs money.  A compulsive gambler may not see it that way, but then they are telling themselves a lie of course.  The fact is that a bet is a “service” you spend money on, and thus should expect to receive “value” for that spend, outside of any hypothetical winnings.

Second, is this unspoken?  Is this unacknowledged?  Is this an insight?  For sure it is.  Despite regulatory efforts, the whole betting industry is built on the implicit promise of winnings.  It’s built on the assumption that the point of betting is to win – even though that isn’t actually what happens on aggregate.  What Kenny is saying is complete common sense, and yet (to me at least) highly revealing and arresting at the same time.

Imagine then the seismic effects that an insight like this can have (and did have) on a business like Paddy Power.  Paddy Power, more than any other bookie, acts as an “entertainment brand” above and beyond the intrinsic “entertainment” of betting – whether that’s through their innovative betting products, their bizarre betting topics, or most notably their marketing, which is often more humorous and original than most bonafide TV comedy.

Ultimately Paddy Power looked truth in the eye and responded accordingly.  Doesn’t mean you have to like or admire them necessarily, but you’ve got to say that the approach worked.

So if you want to act strategically, but perhaps want to tackle it in a more human, less nerdy way than “trying to strategise”, try this instead.

  • Ask first, are the assumptions we are working by actually true?
  • What lies are we telling ourselves?
  • And moreover, what truths are we missing?
  • What is true even if perhaps in our hearts we wish it wasn’t?

At the core of every business must be a truth like this.  A truth that animates everything, like the core of a nuclear reactor.  And crucially, a truth that they own; that they alone have looked in the face, and decided to address.

It’s rarely pretty, hence why we avert our gaze.  But it’s always powerful.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.