The (in)ability that leads to strategic breakthroughs

Let’s be honest: not everyone has the same aptitude for this stuff.

Although my focus here is to make big bold strategy democratic, and accessible to everyone, there’s always going to come a moment when know-how breaks down, and personal ability takes over.

That stuff can be trained partially, but not totally.  Ultimately some people just have a quirky knack that others don’t.

Here I want to talk about what that knack might be.

It would be foolish and glib to say it’s simply about “intelligence”.  Although in some cases I’m sure this acts as a multiplier, there are millions of astonishing intelligent people out there who are also astonishingly poor strategic thinkers.  I don’t think there’s any correlation here.

No, what I’ve come to see in my career is almost the opposite.

It’s not an ability that gives someone the gift, but rather an inability.  The crucial strategic building blocks of insight, simplicity, and clarity arise not because of a skill, but rather to compensate for a lack of skill.

And that skill that strategists lack is this:

Being able to handle detail.

Yes, I think that the more comfortable you are with consuming and processing vast amounts of detail, the worse you will be at crafting an effective strategy.  Or perhaps more accurately, it will come to you less naturally.


Because breakthrough insight comes from something that people who can handle detail simply don’t need to do; namely distilling that detail down to a basic gist.

Whenever you say “just give me the gist” about a topic, you are moving the conversation to a macro level, and therefore a strategic level.  Super-smart detail thinkers tend not to have this instinct – they want to “know it all”, leave no stone unturned, be thorough and rigorous – and this is a hinderance.

To use myself as an example, my brain quickly overheats when presented with either:

  1. A high volume of information
  2. Highly complex information

This even applies to something super trivial, like remembering errands and stuff like that.

To compensate, I will reduce all dense sets of information back to their basic overall “essence”, simply to stop my head from exploding.

“So basically what all this means is X”.

That kind of thing.

And that – that X – is exactly where the answer lies.  It’s where you can find the big picture truths which guide the whole ship, as opposed to simply turning a dial in the engine room (so to speak).

Now, I’ve no reason to believe that people who are comfortable with detail can’t do this.  Not at all.  It’s more that they aren’t in the habit of doing it.  It’s not an automatic process.  And worse, like most people, they probably believe the “answer” lies within the detail, and so they will use their skills burrow into it.

But they’re looking in the wrong place.

Consume the detail, by all means – but then chuck it away.  Zoom wayyy back out, and ask:

  • What’s the gist?
  • What information jumps out?
  • What feels important here?

This is how you find the patterns that organise the facts (the stuff that matters), as opposed to the facts themselves (which don’t).

It’s a bit like that cliché where effective innovators and leaders attribute their success to being “lazy”, in a humble-brag sort of way.  It’s a throwaway line, and probably not true for the most part.  But in this narrower sense, you can see how it works.  “Laziness” (i.e. detail intolerance) produces the by-product of relentless big picture thinking – because, at the end of the day, it’s just less effort!

So look, I don’t know where you fall on the spectrum.

Or how it feels to be in someone else’s head other than my own.

But I do know that if you master the principles, you’ll be miles ahead of most other people when it comes to strategic thinking, regardless of your aptitude.

This useful weakness we’ve talked about?  It’s just the cherry on the cake.

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