Is that thing you’re calling a strategy actually behaving like one?
Did I do a strategy? How can I tell?
In my experience, documents or presentations with the word ‘strategy’ in the title don’t always obey the fundamental rules of strategy. Often, in my role as an agency Strategy Director, I’d criticise the ‘strategy’ work of someone on my team by saying something like, “That’s really interesting, it contains some good insights and some provocative observations but, if I’m the client, it doesn’t actually tell me what I’m meant to do next.”
A strategy is a framework for making decisions. A strategy should tell you what to do, and what not to do, in a given set of circumstances. A strategy won’t make decisions easy, but it should make them simple.
Strategy that doesn’t provide a clear framework for decisions, actions and tactics isn’t a strategy at all.
So I wrote a simple, longhand definition of strategy, and an associated checklist, that agency planners could use to assess their own strategy work.
Did I do a strategy?
You’ll find as many definitions of what strategy is, and what good strategy looks like, as you’ll find strategists. That’s as it should be. If you aspire to be a strategy leader, it’s important that you have your own point of view, your personal take, on what strategy is and how to do it.
The definition below isn’t my favourite. It was written to serve a specific purpose, namely as the basis of a checklist for junior planners on my team, to help them to answer for themselves the question, “Did I do a strategy?”
THE BEST PLAN, OUT OF ALL VIABLE PLANS, ALLOWING FOR SITUATIONAL FACTORS, TO ACHIEVE PRECISELY DEFINED AND VALUABLE OUTCOMES.
Let’s break this down and build up a checklist.
THE BEST PLAN, OUT OF ALL VIABLE PLANS,
- Have you given the client a plan? Have you given them a framework for making decisions? Is it obvious what the client should do, and not do, next?
- Why is this the best plan? Are you going out on a limb and making a recommendation? Remember that you’re being paid to have an opinion.
- What other viable strategies did you consider and discard? What was your process of elimination? Where is the evidence of due diligence and rigour?
ALLOWING FOR SITUATIONAL FACTORS,
- What criteria did you use for your process of elimination?
- How is this strategy designed for the real world? What practical factors and contextual issues have you taken into account in making your recommendation?
- How is this strategy informed by primary research, by audience insights, by constraints of budget, time and other resources, by the regulatory environment, by technology, by competitor activity, by relevant cultural observations, by brand values, by your client’s culture and so on?
TO ACHIEVE PRECISELY DEFINED AND VALUABLE OUTCOMES.
- Did you have cause to challenge your client’s objectives? Did you find a better brief to work to? If so, where is the rationale?
- Are the desired outcomes from this strategy precisely defined and commercially valuable?
- Is your strategy demonstrably anchored to these well-defined, valuable objectives?
- Have you translated those objectives into a well-defined behavioural or attitudinal problem?
- Have you avoided woolly, imprecise terms like “engagement”?
- Is it clear how progress or success in solving this problem will be measured? What are your units of measurement? Have you made it clear how delivering on these means will achieve your client’s ends?
If this is all obvious, then it wasn’t written for you. I wrote this to help junior planners and to raise the bar across my strategy department in terms of quality control. As mentioned at the top of the post, it has been my experience that this stuff isn’t obvious to everyone. This definition of strategy and the checklist that falls out of it are deliberately unsophisticated. They are no substitute for the hours of practice and well-intentioned coaching that draw out someone’s strategic flair and panache. In summary…
Did I do a strategy? A shorthand checklist.
- Is this a framework for decisions? Does the client know what to do, and what not to do, next?
- Have you shown your working? What’s your recommendation and why?
- How is this a practical solution, designed for the real world?
- Is this based on a well-defined problem that is usefully solved?
- Have you precisely defined the units of measurement for progress and success?
Here are some useful perspectives on strategy from other people.
- Alastair Campbell on ‘The big how’.
- David J Carr on strategy, tactics and wishful thinking.
- Mark Ritson on brand strategy.
- Martin Weigel on radical planning.
And, if you found this useful, you might also find this post on The Many Voices of Planning interesting too.