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Strategy is Your Words : Book Review

Strategy is Your Words : Book Review

Strategy is Your Words by Mark Pollard

On page 155 of Strategy is Your Words, Mark Pollard states that, “Strategy is ideas and ideas are made of words.” If he posted that without context as a Tweet, I expect it would be a red rag to Strategy Twitter. However, unlike most things that Strategy Twitter finds provocative – which, these days, is pretty much anything – this statement should be provocative because it’s an opinion. It’s an argument. And therefore it has charisma.

Mr Potato Head is a voodoo doll with ambitions.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

I don’t know Mark very well but I do like him. He’s as charismatic as his words, and he’s my kind of planner. I’ve seen him do his thing in front of a live audience, and I’ve been a guest on his Sweathead podcast. He asks very good questions. He listens well. He’s enthusiastic. He’s candid. And he’s not afraid to be vulnerable. Most importantly in the context of this book, he doesn’t try to be clever. Trying to be clever is an anchor that’s dragged by too many earnest and ambitious strategists.

…brand essences all sound like whispered perfume television commercials from Paris.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words
Mark Pollard IPA Strategy Workout Edinburgh November 2018
Mark’s Strategy Workout for the IPA in Edinburgh, November 2018

Mark sees strategy as a means to good work, not an end in its own right. And he preaches clarity, precision and the need to understand your craft from first principles.

On page 154 of Strategy is Your Words, Mark says, “The secret about ideas is this: Few people who use the word ‘idea’ know what an idea is. Or how to have an idea. Or how to help others have an idea. Or how ideas are different from thoughts. Or how to explain an idea. Or how to express an idea. Or how to make an idea. Actually that’s seven secrets.” This is all true. The same is true of other fundamental words. If you do insist on trying to be clever, “What is an insight?” or “What is strategy?” shouldn’t feel like trick questions.

Pages 154 and 155 are both in Chapter 3 (Ideas Are First & Forever). And Chapter 3 is the first chapter in Section II (Strategy Words). Strategy is Your Words is not a typical ‘how-to’ strategy book, certainly not in Section I. The earnest and ambitious reader might find the opening chapters a little frustrating. I didn’t. Mark isn’t just concerned with the work of strategy. He’s concerned with the messy context and culture in which that work takes place, as every good strategist should be. And that’s what Section I is about.

Ideas and idea-havers aren’t as safe in corporate America as you’d expect.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

If you listen regularly to the Sweathead podcast, you’ll know that Mark often talks to his guests about the culture in which they ply their trade. What’s it like to be a planner in Amsterdam? How did you find it in New York? I think it’s maybe a little different in London? This isn’t just icebreaking or idle banter. It’s important. A strategist is a pragmatist. All the good thinking in the world is for nought if it doesn’t lead to good work in the public domain. All the good thinking in the world is for nought if cultures that say that ideas can come from anywhere actually proscribe creative thinking that happens outside the creative department.

When teams who think for a living do not discuss how they think about their work, how they like to work, what they need from each other, their hopes and goals as individuals and as a team on a given project, or what ‘good work’ means, it is gas piping into a car in a closed suburban garage.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

I know from my own experience that Mark is very good at getting inside the heads of his guests. Before you know it, you’ve shared your principles, your values, your insecurities. He doesn’t let you keep the personal and the professional artificially separated. And in the first section of his book he does unto himself as he has done unto us others. He gets inside his own head. It’s the book of the film called Being Mark Pollard. He explores the dark side of a strategy life, the dangers of an obsession with ideas, the mental toll of too much empathy, not liking what you see in the mirror of your timesheets.

A career high falls to Earth and you lay fetal next to it and spoon.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

So don’t expect to learn from the first section of the book, not in a text book way at least. Do let it affect you, however. Strategy is Your Words is a very different book to A Wicked Pack of Cards by Marcus or Shot By Both Sides by Eaon. But its opening section works on you in a similar way. When you return to what you were doing before you picked it up, your perception has altered and you do your work differently. I guess that makes it art.

The most important things in life tend to be simple but not easy. If you believe this, and if strategy is the most important thing in your professional life, then the second half of this book is for you. It’s about craft.

In the second half of the book, Mark dissects the body of strategy. He identifies its vital organs and describes how they work together to give life to ideas. Mark is respectful and sceptical towards frameworks. He deliberately hand draws them to emphasise that they are fluid and adaptable. Nonetheless he organises the moving parts of strategy according to his Four Points diagram.

Strategy is Your Words Mark Pollard Four Points Model

He then demonstrates how simple it is, but not easy, to do strategy. He describes the anatomy of an idea and demonstrates how you can use lateral thinking to come up with one. He emphasises that one idea is never enough. You need to keep going, generating more and more ideas, until you are literally and laterally exhausted. The principles are simple. The practice is hard.

He shows how to frame a problem so as to bring some empathy and dramatic tension to your thinking. He talks about the revelatory nature of a genuine insight, and how close insights are to ideas.

Looking for the human problem behind the business problem is a rapid way to get to the heart of the attitudes and behaviours you need to help change.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

He talks about the language of problems and insights and strategy, and how it’s all the language of ideas, and how that’s ok if you know what you’re doing, if you practice your craft. There are several made-up worked examples, which explain the techniques. Mark uses a worked example to show that a well-considered strategy doesn’t care about which creative brief template you have to fill in. It’s like a magician showing you how to do a trick, and then expecting to be able to do it just as well yourself. You’ve been taught the mechanics but, without the practice, you lack the dexterity to do the trick well. Strategy is your words, and good words are hard work.

Show me something you have put in public. Tell me why you did it, what happened when you did it, and what you learned. If you’re passionate, passion would have made you do this already.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

The second half of the book is as practical as the first half is whimsical. But it’s also realistic and tinged with melancholy. Because your strategy words are expressed in the language of ideas, they can get you into trouble. Some people might feel that you have gone too far with your thinking, that you have overstepped the mark into creative territory. As if strategy weren’t difficult enough without a wilful misunderstanding of your efforts by your colleagues.

Overall then this is the book you want it to be if you are earnest and ambitious. It is a book about how to do strategy. But it’s also a book about how to be a useful and effective strategist in an industry that, for all its protestations of creativity and agility, puts up an awful lot of barriers to simple, useful work.

When you do strategy, you make meaning from mess, and words do this for you.

Mark Pollard, Strategy is Your Words

One last thing. I admire Mark for pricing his book, his art, at $50 plus delivery. It’s a confident act of positioning. Strategy is Your Words is a product of many years of practice, and the price reflects that. I bought the book because of its price, not in spite of it. And when it arrives, it is a lovely thing. It’s a hefty tome with weighty content. The perfect gift for the earnest, ambitious planner in your life, especially if that person is you.

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