Somewhere along the way, business has acquired an unwritten rule that goes something like this:
Creativity and artistry are only to be applied in the media elements of company, specifically its advertising and branding.
Advertising and branding, the external media “dressing” of a business, are the acceptable canvas for fun, playful, exuberant, emotional creative thinking, whilst the rest of the business, “the real business”, is not. No, the real business is the preserve of the “grown ups”. It is rational, it is evidence-based, it is mechanistic, and yes, it is boring too.
This “boringness” that rules the foundational elements of business is, we’re led to believe, somehow necessary and noble. It’s what good business looks like, even feels like. We’d never admit it out loud, but I think we all secretly believe that the dull solution is probably the best solution; that the deck with more slides and more charts provides the truer analysis; and that technical mindset should always take precedence over the imaginative.
Now there are certainly elements of truth in this philosophy. Certain parts of business management are necessarily rigid and technical no matter which way you cut them. “Creative bookkeeping” generally denotes fraud rather than an exciting new way of doing things.
However it seems to me that we allow this dryness to saturate not just isolated subsets of business, but rather the whole damn thing.
This is certainly the case with strategy, which on the whole is not a fun, imaginative, and creative discipline but rather one of jargon-riddled academic rigour. To see what I mean just imagine what a typical “strategist” looks like, or “strategic consultancy” or “strategic process”. Doesn’t exactly get the blood flowing does it?
So why is this the case? Why is “proper” business so damn serious?
I think the obvious explanation is that we believe that the dry and technical are somehow “scientific” and thus “true”. We believe that a decision based on rigorous analysis is more likely to be on the money than one based on opinionated insight. At a subconscious level we probably even conflate the grey suit of the consultant with the white coat of the scientist. We feel that the incomprehensibility of a paper on nuclear physics marks it out as “superior” information, so we wish to see something similar mirrored in our companies.
“If I don’t get it, and find it boring, then it must be right!”.
But in truth this is simply a case of the emperor’s new clothes.
Business is not science. There is not a “right” solution in the same way there is for a maths problem. There is no amount of analysis that will deliver you certainty. Business, like human life in general, is an open problem, subject to levels of unpredictability and chaos that are beyond reductive mastery. Decisions – even the most sophisticated and expensive ones – are only ever punts. They are only ever opinions, no matter how grey and un-opinionated you make them sound.
Considering this, why shouldn’t we allow a bit of fun into the decision making process?
This is my pitch to you. Business in general, but more specifically strategy, should not only be smart, but joyful. It should be amusing. It should be surprising. It should be subjective. Strategies should hang on divergent ways of seeing the world; on ideas that make you gasp, or laugh. They should be exciting to execute. They should make you go “fuck yeah” rather than “yes that appears to be prudent”.
In the downstream world of advertising (say), this kind of provocative thinking is allowed (although even there it’s increasingly under threat). This is because advertising is seen as 1) harmless, and 2) at least partially irrational.
Well guess what? The whole thing is irrational.
The whole thing is a giant experiment that relies, unavoidably, on interactions with human beings who will stubbornly refuse to behave like flawless economic actors.
This means that great business by definition has irrationality – joy, fear, humour, whatever – baked in at its very core.
Don’t believe me? Then take a minute to think about Elon Musk.
(NB yes, I get that everyone hates him now, but I’m just trying to illustrate a point, so for the purposes of this essay please humour me)
Why exactly is this guy the world’s most successful entrepreneur? Is it because he does’t make mistakes? Is it because he has superior analytical skills which enable him to always be “right”? Clearly not – just look at the way he’s currently slipping and sliding around Twitter. No, the only truly remarkable thing about Musk, the only thing that obviously makes him stand out from other business leaders is this:
He’s having a good time.
He’s making decisions via a blend of analysis and give-a-fuck intuition. Tesla, when all’s said and done, was hardly the world’s first electric car brand – but it was the first car brand to install random features purely because the founder thought they were cool. Another of his ventures, an infrastructure and tunnelling company is called The Boring Company – because why not? They even sold a flamethrower for some reason I’m not quite sure about. And that’s before we even get on to the SpaceX stuff.
Understand, I’m not trying to say here that all business should be “jokey”. These are just very blunt examples to make the point. What I am trying to say however is that all business should be creative. It should fire the imagination from its very core. And that means allowing a degree of human artistry and intuition into the fundamental decision making process; into the strategy.
(Steve Jobs, incidentally, while being stylistically very different from Musk, was just the same in this respect)
When I write a strategy for a client, I always try at the bare minimum to make it interesting. This isn’t just because my clients are human beings, and human beings like interesting stuff (although that would be reason enough). No, it’s because interesting strategies build interesting companies. And interesting companies attract customers, and are fun to work for.
We’re all capable of asking “is this decision right?”, that’s the easy part, and I don’t want to dismiss it. But how many brands also ask “is it interesting?”. “Is it exciting?”. Not many.
So consider this my manifesto then.
I accept that good strategy doesn’t have to be this way. And I accept that good business doesn’t have to be this way either. This is ultimately just my opinion.
But damn it, it’s the way I want to work. And between you and I, if you really want to bow completely to the rational, I think it delivers stronger results too.