Strategy, ironically, has crap branding.
Branding of course concerns not what something “is”, but rather how something is presented and perceived. How people think of it. And then, in turn, how people use it.
So when I say that strategy has shit branding, I mean that it is presented in a way that both makes people misunderstand it, and use it incorrectly.
What is strategy’s branding? I won’t labour the point as I’ve written about it a couple of times before, but to give you a quick little word-cloud of flavour:
- Chess (always chess…)
- Grey and blue
- Laptop bags (this one always springs to my mind for some reason)
- Proprietary models
…and a whole bunch of other stuff which could probably best be summed up as a mash up between science and business. Swap the lab coats for suits and the petri dishes for slides and you’re pretty much there.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing incorrect about any of this stuff. No, the issue is not accuracy so much as implication: what this stuff suggests about strategy, which then leads people to misunderstand and misapply it.
Some of the major suggestions are:
• Strategy is scientific. It involves using a rigorous and objective process to come up with a provably “right” answer.
• Strategy is technical. The quality of the answer directly correlates with the density of the data and the intricacy of the analysis.
• Strategy is credentialed. Like medicine or engineering, it is best handled by those with the relevant “qualifications” (PHDs etc.) who will be able to “handle” the machinery.
• Strategy is corporate. It requires a level of attention and resources which is only truly available to the kinds of brands who have $2million to hire McKinsey.
• Strategy is boring. Speaks for itself.
Unlike the elements of the branding, which are true enough, these implications of the branding are not. They are false. Sometimes in the sense that strategy doesn’t have to be that way (e.g. credentialed, corporate). And sometimes in the sense that it’s just flat-out bullshit (e.g. strategy is scientific).
All in all it adds up to people getting the wrong end of the stick, and therefore:
1. Doing strategy wrong by attempting to be too technical and “clever clever” with it
2. Just not doing it at all
What I want to suggest here then is something of a re-brand for strategy. A framing of it around a concept which is at least as true (and in my opinion more true) than the current one, but which has far more accurate and helpful implications for the field at large.
My alternative for getting a feel for how strategy really is?
Yes, I think that imagination is more central to the strategic process than any of the stuff listed above – including even intelligence, research, and analysis. When you understand strategy as being primarily an imaginative exercise, you “get it” far more deeply than that. And you start to understand how you might go about it productively.
Before expanding on this, we need to be careful. Imagination is not the same thing as “fantasy”. As “dreaming up things that weren’t there before” – which is the more classic “creative” exercise that you associate with artistic fields. This is a common misconception.
No, imagination means being able to look at something and see it differently than anyone else.
A classic imaginative exercise, which you’ve probably heard of, is where someone asks you to list 100 different things you can do with a brick. There is no fantasy involved with this task. It is grounded and real. It simply involves breaking your pre-existing thought patterns and seeing truths which were already there, but just hadn’t been noticed yet.
This act of imaginative noticing is exactly how strategy works in business.
Exercises like research and analysis are useful because they expand your frame of reference, giving you more for your imagination to chew over – but they don’t replace the imaginative leap itself. This is why they are secondary. To torture the analogy a bit, If you know the chemical composition of a brick you’ll be able to think of more uses for it than if you didn’t – but that knowledge won’t give you the answer in isolation.
At a pinch I think you could boil all my projects down like this. To a moment where we say “have we thought about it like this?”, and that being the breakthrough. Such moments need no “proof”, or “evidence”, in the same way that you need no proof or evidence that you could throw a brick through a window. It’s obvious. But someone just has to see it that way first.
Were strategy to be branded this way, “imagination centric”, I think it would have a few positive effects:
- It would help people understand that strategy chiefly concerns interpretation and not analysis. That it’s a game of opinions, not an equation to be “solved”
- This then would free people to approach it with confidence, even if they lacked resources. You can strategise with basic information on the back of a napkin if you need to, you don’t need to show intricate workings like a doctoral thesis.
- And finally it would make it seem more fun. More loose. More flowing. Something as easily done over a beer as over a stack of papers.
I actually thought the TV show Succession did a really good job of showing true strategy in action. The main characters there – the children of a Rupert Murdoch style media mogul, in case you haven’t seen it – are constantly “strategising” in an informal, discursive, and imaginative manner; before passing their instructions down to their armies of bean counters to shore everything up.
In short: imagination first, analysis second.
Naturally this branding change isn’t going to happen any time soon. The current faux-scientific paradigm isn’t an accident. It allows big firms to charge big bucks for thinking that “you couldn’t do” due to your lack of expertise. It’s a black box by design, not by accident. It takes its cues from fields where technical knowledge actually is important (e.g. law, finance) and attempts to borrow their gravitas and exclusivity.
And that’s all fine. But between us here, we know that it’s not really like that.
The core act requires nothing that you don’t have. An answer can just as easily be arrived at in a moment as in a year. With limited data as with mountains of data. With a high school diploma as with a doctorate.
So long as there’s imagination, everything else is optional.