The “Thingness” of strategy: The mindset shift that changes everything

If there’s one part of my job that really sucks, it’s this:

Nobody is shopping for what I’m selling.

There are companies out there thinking “we need a lawyer”, so they go shopping for a law firm.  There are companies thinking “we need a new website”, so they go shopping for a web developer.  There are companies thinking “we need new branding”, so they go shopping for a branding agency.

But, other than in exceptionally rare circumstances, there is nobody out there thinking “we need a better strategy”, and shopping for someone like me.

Now normally this would mean something pretty obvious: I don’t have a viable business.

However, this effect is mitigated by the fact that although nobody is consciously shopping for a strategy, almost everybody desperately needs it.

You can sit down with pretty much any founder or any CEO and chat with them for 15 minutes, and this issue becomes apparent.  To a man and to a woman they are all suffering from at least a couple of the symptoms that accompany lack of strategy, e.g.:

  • Lack of clarity and confidence in what they offer
  • Uncertainty over how to unlock growth
  • Squeezed profits
  • Competitive pressure
  • Low standout and differentiation
  • Etc.

However it rarely occurs to them that the issue is “lack of strategy”.

Why is this?

Partially it’s because we naturally tend to try and tackle problems at the level we notice them, without it occurring to us that the source of the issue may lie somewhere “upstream”.

When founders notice they have a sales problem, they try to fix it at the level of sales.  When they have a marketing problem, they try to fix it at the level of marketing.  When they have a culture problem, they try to fix it at the level of culture.

And sometimes they’re right – they do have a tactical issue like that.

But more often they’re wrong – 8 times out of 10 these problems are simply symptoms of a lack of strategy: because if your strategy is wrong, none of the things below it are going to work properly, I guarantee it.

(As you can imagine this leads to colossal amounts of waste, as resources are poured into ineffective downstream fixes for a fundamentally upstream problem).

The other more troubling issue however is this:

To most people, strategy is simply invisible because it’s not a “thing”.

This is a really important point that it’s crucial for you to grasp.

When something is a “thing” – e.g. a logo, a website, a privacy policy, a printer, etc. – it’s very apparent whether you have it or not.  If yes, tick; if no, then you go get one.

To most founders and CEOs strategy is not like this.  It is not a thing.  It is more a label for the nebulous process of thinking that goes on at the top of the organisation – a bit like the word “communication”.  Yes, communication is important.  Yes, communication happens.  But it’s not something you can buy in a box.

This is just how people understand strategy.

But they are dead wrong.

A (proper) strategy is a thing that is just as discrete and concrete as a logo or website or anything else:

It is the unique method by which you will gain outsized profits compared to the rest of your market.

The unique method.  Like a recipe for a cake.  Or a blueprint for a building.  Write it down on a piece of paper, and bingo, there it is.  A hard and objective “tool” (if you like) which a business simply either has or it doesn’t.

When you start interpreting strategy this way – as a “thing” rather than a vague term akin to “thinking” or “communication” – its presence (or more often lack) becomes much more apparent.  Suddenly “not having a strategy” becomes as glaring an omission as “not having a website” – a basic fundamental that you have to address.

If this mindset shift were to occur (and I”m not holding my breath) then “strategy agencies” would become just as commonplace as “web developers” or “branding agencies”.  As it is however they are so rare that I have honestly not come across a single direct competitor in 7 years of doing this.

(Strategy consultancies do exist at the very high corporate level with McKinsey etc., but this is probably because those businesses are riddled with MBAs who probably have at least a cursory understanding of who Michael Porter is.  But at any other level, the discipline is near non-existent).

Understanding a strategy as a “thing” also removes the shame that I think sometimes accompanies hiring a strategy consultant.

If you think it’s just “thinking” then it sounds like you’re getting someone to come and “think for you”.  But if you recognise it’s a specialist item – like a line of code, or a piece of machinery – then the shame dissolves.

The founder’s job isn’t necessarily to come up with the strategy (although they might well do, and they certainly must oversee it).  Their job is lead the business in making it happen.

Sigh.  Well, I can dream can’t I?

Until then I’ll have to just plod on.  Bit by bit.  Converting people one at a time.

But if you like you can help me out.  Forward this email to one person you know who might benefit from this way of looking at it.  And maybe, one day, the floodgates will open.

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