You’ve all heard the phrase “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”, and I will admit that for a long time this was kinda the case with me:
I had no strategy.
Or at least, not a particularly compelling one.
Now in my case this didn’t matter hugely because I also had effectively zero competitors. Here in the UK at least, there are almost no “solo strategy consultants”, largely because there is no understanding about what strategy actually is outside of corporate circles, thus there is no demand.
And heck, who would want to enter a market with no demand?
Well, me apparently. And I managed to make it work through painstaking education of potential clients, essentially by:
• Getting in front of them (somehow)
• Explaining what strategy actually is
• Making them realise they don’t have one
• And then converting the sale
Reasonably effective, sure. Probably more effective than what most solo consultants are doing. But ultimately too piecemeal to have any serious growth potential.
Over time however I have managed to feel my way to a bigger strategic idea, which is starting to bear fruit.
I figured I share that with you here – since for some reason people seem to really like hearing about this “under the hood stuff”, and it also serves as a decent example of strategic thinking in action.
Before I lay it out however, an important note:
This is not well-articulated.
Most strategies need to be constructed with painstaking clarity so they can be shared and understood across an organisation. In my case however, this isn’t necessary, because it’s just me. I don’t have 100 employees I need to align. I just need to get the gist myself.
As a result I’ve never written this out (until now). So don’t take this as the “gold standard” in strategy formulation – it’s just a down n’ dirty example of the thought process.
I. My strategy
I find my field – “business strategy” – to be genuinely fascinating.
It’s the game of how you can literally 100x your ROI through pure thought alone. Where you can spend $1 on strategy “X” and get $0 return, or spend the same $1 on strategy “Y”, and get $100 return.
Who wouldn’t be interested in that?
Well, apparently, most people. Most people are not particularly interested in strategy – including, weirdly, the leaders of businesses. People whose ENTIRE JOB essentially is strategy.
The symptoms of this indifference are everywhere:
• Nobody can define “strategy” fluently
• People use the word to mean things it doesn’t
• Most businesses have no strategy
Why this indifference to the most fundamental and high leverage discipline in the whole game?
The issue, I think, is that the classical understanding of strategy is fundamentally incomplete.
Let me explain.
Strategy has ONE JOB, and that is to provoke effective action. To get a business to do things which will deliver results. That’s obvious.
But what does it take to provoke such action?
1. Identifying the right things to do
2. Motivating people to do them
Now, traditionally the strategy industry is obsessed with the first of these – figuring out the right thing to do. But it is totally neglectful of the second – motivating people to do it.
This is why strategy normally seems so:
It’s an industry so obsessed with being right that it forgets that it has an equal responsibility to be exciting and inspirational. Because after all, what’s the point in being “right” if nobody understands or gives a shit?
This, I think, is why most business leaders outside of more corporate / MBA circles are so disengaged from strategy. It seems so theoretical, whereas they are people of action. They are people of vision. They are people of guts.
And strategy, for the most part, is gutless.
My goal then, is to introduce the missing “motivational half” to the field. To teach people not only how to be “right”, but to be right in such a way as that it energises the organisation, and stokes people’s passions.
This is basically my “strategy”.
In practice it means various things which you have hopefully noticed in my work:
• Simplifying classical strategic concepts
• Integrating the human / emotional factor into strategy rather than engineering it out
• Highlighting the importance of strategies being interesting as well as simply sensible
• …and generally “sexing it up”
II. Analysing my strategy
So that’s the gist of my game – but to make this somewhat relevant to you, and not just an act of navel-gazing on my part, we should take a look at what makes it “strategic”.
There are three factors to consider here:
First, as you know all strategies need to be built on an “insight” – but what the hell does that mean anyway?
The answer is that it means seeing an obvious truth in something that nobody’s noticed before.
A “secret”, in other words. Something I know but the other guy doesn’t, which therefore gives me an advantage.
In my case this is the realisation that strategy is 50% about “rightness” and 50% about “motivation”. When I put it like that, it’s obviously true; it needs no proof. Of course a strategy needs to inspire forceful action, otherwise the whole thing’s pointless.
And yet how often do people acknowledge this?
Pretty much never, as you can see from the stylistic shortcomings of the strategy industry – so there’s my point of competitive leverage.
Then we have the question of practicality – does the strategy actually give me concrete instructions on how to run the business? After all, a strategy without clear implications is totally pointless.
In this case there are loads of practical implications, for example:
1. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the stylistic way I both talk about strategy, and deliver strategies to clients. The work must “feel” totally different to what they’re used to (or what they imagine). It must get them and their team pumped.
2. It drives me predominantly towards consumer brands, since they have a more intuitive understanding of the need to be “exciting”. Of course the principles are just as important in B2B, but generally they’re less emotionally driven so for the most part I can discount them as a market (though happy to chat if they come knocking).
3. It gives my business a dual focus, where I can monetise both strategy development (obviously), but also strategy education for people who don’t chime with classical strategy (books, courses, etc.). I haven’t done much with the latter part of this equation yet, but that’s coming down the pipeline.
Finally there is the question of defensibility. It’s not enough to offer a value that the market wants – it also has to be an offer that I’m reasonably confident my competitors couldn’t copy.
In that respect I feel I’m on pretty solid ground here.
On the one hand, I don’t think more corporate / classical strategy consultancies could really pursue the more “irrational” elements of this approach without undermining the perception of rigour which most of them rely on.
And then when it comes to other boutique / solo practitioners, I feel fairly incubated from them because this approach places a huge emphasis on stylistic presentation (the “flair” bits of the process). There are loads of people out there who understand strategy, but not many who can combine that with the more “superficial” / “artistic” elements which are needed to deliver on the motivational side of the equation.
(And heck, if there are one or two, that’s no big deal).
So that’s the general idea.
Hopefully this wasn’t too self-indulgent or boring, and it gives you a feeling for real, everyday, messy strategic thinking.
Will it work?
Let’s check back in 6 months, and see where we’re at…