My 5 contrarian beliefs on strategy

If I could select one single idea from my body of work which I think is the most powerful and transformative it would be this:

The importance of disagreeing with your competitors.

If you’ve been following my stuff for a while you’ll know all about this.  The point is that it’s not enough to simply be different from your competitors – different can be copied, and you can kid yourself that you’re different when you’re really not – no, you must also be also be contrarian.

Contrarianism – difference built on disagreement – is hard to copy, and hard to fake, and therefore is much more strategically robust than other approaches.

So that’s the basic idea.  All very nice.  But of course, it begs the question:

How am I, Alex Smith, contrarian?

Where do I disagree with my competitors?  Do I follow my own advice?  Do I even listen to my own schtick?  Am I, in fact, a total charlatan?

OK, maybe that last one is a bit harsh, but still I thought that laying out my “contrarian beliefs” in a newsletter might be useful for two reasons:

  1. Because it might teach you some new stuff about strategy, as I always try to do
  2. But moreover it will give you an example of the contrarian value approach in action

You see one slight issue with the examples that I normally use for this (e.g. Southwest Airlines, Nintendo, Tesla, etc.) is that they weren’t necessarily being contrarian on purpose.  Their strategies certainly tapped into this power, but I’m not sure they followed this process to get there.

I, on the other hand, did, so perhaps it’d be helpful to see my thinking.

(Or not, let’s see).

So without further ado here are my 5 contrarian takes on the discipline which I believe (somewhat) separate me from other “strategy consultants”, and which inform the wider strategy of Basic Arts.

1. Being right is overrated

For understandable reasons, the strategy world is highly motivated by coming up with “correct” solutions to problems.  I of course agree, that would be nice, but actually I don’t think it’s all that important.

This is because you have no way of knowing how a strategy is going to perform before it’s actually executed in the world, and then, even if it “works”, you can’t even be sure that it’s the strategy that’s “working”, or some other random unpredictable factor you never intended!

Considering all that, why sweat the “rightness” when in reality you have no way of ensuring it?

Instead get yourself to a point of:

  • Confidence
  • Excitement
  • And action-readiness

…all far more important and controllable factors, and then let fate handle the rest.

2. Strategy is 50% what to do, and 50% motivation to do it

Look, we all know that the purpose of a strategy is to tell you what to do.  That’s obvious.  But it’s not the only purpose of a strategy – the other purpose is to act as a motivational tool that inspires action.

I noticed recently that the world’s most famous “motivational speaker”, Tony Robbins, actually refers to himself as a “strategist”, and in fact I think that’s very apt.  Because triggering massive action is the name of the game here, not simply directing that action.

After all, what’s the point of a great strategy nobody actually does?

You need to inspire first, and direct second – but most of the industry doesn’t seem to take the first part of that equation seriously.

3. The more informal the process, the bigger the insights

I recently wrote that I see my role as injecting a “medicinal dose of unprofessionalism” into my clients’ businesses, and I stand by that.  This is because the conditions that support good day-to-day operations of an organisation (i.e. professionalism) do not provoke good strategy.

For that, you have to enter a different space – both physically and psychologically.

This means humour, controversy, candour, time wasting, drinking, smoking, relaxing, bonding, moving, and all manner of other ways to provoke penetrating and unpredictable thought.

Admittedly I think that most of my competitors would nominally agree with this one, but then again I haven’t often (or indeed ever) seen it actually practiced, so I’m not so sure.

4. Good ideas are self-evident

Connected somewhat to the first belief, I generally don’t believe you have to do much checking or testing of a great strategy when it emerges.

You just know it because such strategies tend to insist upon themselves.  They leave you with no choice, and make all other options redundant or idiotic.

Part of the reason for this is because great strategies are those which are simultaneously obvious, but also have never been thought of before.  That’s the killer combo.

That obviousness will make a mockery of “testing” – like testing whether the sky is indeed blue or if bears do indeed shit in the woods.

If you haven’t reached that point?  Well, then you probably need to keep looking.

5. It can be really really quick

I charge value-based fees so I’m free to say what everyone knows to be true, but few are willing to admit: that this process can be rapid.  I mean like a couple of hours rapid.

Of course my full projects don’t only last a couple of hours, they’re totally open ended so there’s time for me to learn what I need to learn, to finesse things, and to take the business with me.  But the bit that counts?  That’s often just a moment, and not even a particularly hard-won moment at that.

In fairness most consultants like me also refuse to bill by the hour, since it is such a colossally moronic moral hazard for this kind of work.  So there’s nothing contrarian about that.  However taking the next logical step and confessing that a project might not end up being a big undertaking… well, that’s a different matter, because it can devalue the work.

But, in my view, the real work of strategy is nothing less than embracing the truth.  And this is the truth, so I’ll admit it.


Now, I’m sure that many of my readers who are doing a similar thing to me will be violently agreeing with all these points, so in that respect maybe they aren’t contrarian at all.

However, from the point of view of the market (the only POV that counts), it sure doesn’t appear that way, and so the game still works.

Perception is reality, after all.

Notice also – crucially – that these beliefs are not necessarily very flattering to me.  They make me look somewhat lazy, sloppy, risky, unserious, and expensive.

But that is the point.

It is only contrarian if it costs you something – if there is a legitimate alternative point of view.  All criticisms of these points are ENTIRELY JUSTIFIED.  I am not “right” about any of these things, I am exposing myself to vulnerability in one area in order to open up opportunity in another.

If the beliefs don’t make you look bad to some eyes?

Then they are meaningless.

So, how about you?  What makes you look bad?

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