What is strategy?

On almost every LinkedIn profile today, you’ll see a skill for some sort of ‘strategy’ capability listed. Strategy has become the modern day buzzword.

When you move from the digital to the real world and ask someone, though, often those same people can’t provide a clear and concise understanding of what good strategy is and why it is important. And then there’s the wave of strategists across all sectors — PR, corporate, digital, communications, social. The list goes on and on and on.

As a professional strategist this is somewhat frustrating for a two reasons:

  • Everyone thinks they can do my job.
  • But no one actually knows what my job is.

It’s particularly frustrating because when hiring, people often don’t know what to look for in a strategist (other than ‘smart’). It also makes quantifying and selling in strategy exceptionally difficult. Clients will often, in the agency world, get strategy for free as part of the pitch to woo them over.

So what is strategy and why is it important?

Rumelt is a Professor at UCLA in management and defines strategy as ‘finding the most effective way to direct and leverage your resources’.

Michael Porter, the author of Competitive Strategy, gives us a similar (if more well defined) version of this statement: “It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

Whilst both definitions vary slightly, really it’s about directing resources to a more efficient outcome than your competitor. In an even playing field where both parties (whether they be businesses or otherwise) have 10 units of resources, a good strategist will be able to amplify the impact of those units many times more than the competitor can.

Strategists in many ways are professional opportunists, then. They find the best opportunity, create a plan to take advantage of it and plan/direct resources to make the biggest impact possible.

It’s funny when you hear titles in front of strategists, then. Digital strategy (as an example) has been one of the rising stars over the past few years of the ‘strategy’ world. Generally, though, a strategy type is a little like the difference between a drama or an action movie. Sure, they’ve got a different look and feel, but underneath it all you’ve still got the same Hollywood Three Act Structure.

The above is also why you rarely find good strategists coming from conventional backgrounds. They’ve always got a quirk or a reason to see the world differently to others. Without that, they’d never find ‘the way’ that is an outlier to traditional thinking.

Incidentally that’s also why so many strategists are contrarians. Peter Thiel, arguably one of the brightest strategic thinkers today, puts it this way: “Consider this contrarian question: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

It’s often critical thinking that leads you to those important truths.

From this, we can at least understand what the strategist does. The strategist is responsible for finding the most effective way to use a current set of resources, amplifying their effort significantly.

What then should good strategy look like?

  • It should understand and define the problem.
  • It should articulate the factors affecting/inputting the problem.
  • It should make a judgement as to which factor to tackle first, or identify an opportunity to quickly impact many factors with one fell swoop.
  • It should develop a clear set of plans and actions to begin actioning that opportunity.
  • It should clearly be able to measure success.

A good strategist will be able to take the above, though, and frame it in unconventional and contrarian thinking. And when you apply to above to the traditional outputs of strategy departments you can see the outputs often align to the above.

  • Creative strategists (creative briefs): tell the creatives what to make, what insight to use and why.
  • Digital strategists (digital strategy roadmaps): tell the devs/UXers/designers/marketers what we’re building and why, what the priority order should be.
  • Corporate strategists (planning documents/forecasts): tell the company where to invest their money and why, identify/plan for restructuring.
  • Content strategists (content briefs): tell the writers what to write and why.
  • M&A strategists: tell big companies what to buy and why, what acquisitions have most synergy in market.

You can see that whilst the symptomatic skillset and context each strategist operates in is different, the underlying principles are the same. They’re often directing the flow of resources to an opportunity and doing so to maximise the return on effort.

How do you find a good strategist?

The best strategists are by their nature instinctive. Given most strategy is, to some level, interacting with or understanding people/their motivations, you’ll often find them as students of humans.

Basically — there’s no hard and fast formula. What you’re looking for is a person who can identify the problem, find an opportunity to fix it and create a measurable plan for other people to action. That’s a good strategist.

Some unconventional indicators of great strategists that I’ve found in my time (often they’ve been great mentors):

  • Club promoters: often have a high degree of emotional intelligence and understand how to drive large amounts of (often disparate people) to unified action.
  • Anthropologists: students of culture generally have a good insight into what makes people tick.
  • Politicians: have an intrinsic ability to identify opportunity for themselves. If it can be converted into thinking outside of that, often a winner.
  • Philosophers: philosophers are generally inquisitive and have a good understanding of critical thinking.

It’s a pretty broad list, and I’ve seen great strategists come out of all of those backgrounds. Your MBA-types are trained strategists. The above are more likely learned strategists.

Too informative not to share!

Full credit given to Henery Innis