Why read this? : We look at why strategic thinking is about more than calling yourself a strategist. Learn how all us have the right brain power to be strategic. We also share different and unusual views on the meaning of being strategic. Read this to learn why calling yourself a strategist doesn’t make you strategic.
In idea generation, great ideas come when you connect things together which seem like they shouldn’t connect.
That’s how this week’s article came about. We had some random thoughts about brain science, job titles and reality TV. And those led us to an article idea about strategy and strategists.
Not that we’re brain scientists. But who’d argue against the brain being one of the most amazing parts of the human body?
Our brains are what makes us think, feel and do things. With that in mind, we recently came across this interesting 2013 Ted Talk from Dr Joe Dispenza. It’s on the (brain) science of changing your mind.
We haven’t come across him before. And be warned, he gets preachy towards the end.
He explains some complex terms from the world of brain science in a way that’s easy for all us non brain scientists to understand.
He explains the biochemistry that happens when you literally ‘change your mind’. How correct the science is we’re not so sure (*see footnote for more on this). But he sure tells a valuable story.
One thing which stood out for us was the human brain has around 100 billion neurons (nerve cells).
Firstly, wow! That’s a big number. And secondly, we all have that many neurons flying around in our brains. And that’s important for how we think about strategy. Because it means we all have the same basic building blocks of thought.
Neurons form thoughts, memories and experiences
Neurons form the thoughts, memories and experiences which make us who we are.
What’s interesting is the number of neurons stays fairly constant over the course of your life.
So as your brain processes each new piece of information it’s exposed to, it creates new neurons to make sense of that information.
But there’s a limit to how many neurons your brain can hold.
New thoughts, memories and experiences squeeze out old and unused neurons. Thoughts, memories and experiences you don’t need any more.
Which got us thinking about the neurons we’ve applied to strategy over the years. Because strategic thinking goes heavy on the neurons. It converts the neurons from previous experience, thoughts and memories into new thoughts which help you decide what to do. Strategic thinking is actually biochemistry in action.
And the important thing is this biochemistry happens in everyone’s brain. No one has a monopoly on biochemistry. So no one has a monopoly on strategic thinking. We all have the neurons to “do” strategy.
As as our neurons fired on this, one particular neuron fired from our memory.
That memory leads us to the first reason to beware the strategist.
One of the first big projects we ever worked on was with a company who were looking at acquisitions.
They were considering buying a smaller competitor. If they bought them, it’d boost sales, profit and market share. And they’d be complementary to the company’s brand portfolio.
This project was led by a very senior leader in the Corporate Development team. We remember it as a great project. Lots of learning.
We learned how to evaluate other businesses and how to analyse their fit to our portfolio. It was a chance to work with some very smart people.
During the process, we remember one particular meeting with the project leader. She was the strategic lead for the business, advising the board on business issues and future direction.
There’s one particular piece of advice she gave us we still follow today. One neuron that still fires hard in one of our three brains. And it’s this simple thought.
Strategy is something everyone can and should do. She was adamant you don’t need a separate strategy team in your business. Strategy shouldn’t be a separate function.
You don't need a strategy team in your business
So her advice was to be wary of anyone who feels the need to put the word ‘strategy’, ‘strategic’ or ‘strategist’ in their job title.
As per the title of this article, beware the strategist. To be more specific, beware the person who feels the need to call themselves a strategist.
We’ve met many people whose job titles or LinkedIn profiles call out strategy. You’ve probably met them too.
Vice President of Strategy. Head of Strategy. Strategic Marketing Manager.
We could go on. And we get it. A job with the word strategy in it sounds important. And we understand some of what these people do might require some specialist knowledge. Strategic frameworks, processes and models like the Ansoff matrix.
But we can’t help looking at these job titles, and sighing wearily. Because strategic frameworks, processes or models aren’t the strategy itself. They’re just tools to help you create your strategy. And unless you want to sound like a tool, you probably shouldn’t call yourself a strategist.
You don't need to think about strategy
By calling yourself ‘strategy’ something, you’re saying to everyone else, ‘you don’t need to think about strategy. That’s my job’.
How arrogant and disempowering is that?
If you’re a junior brand manager and your ‘strategic marketing manager’ boss feels the need to keep using the word ‘strategic’ isn’t he or she saying, you just do stuff? I’ll do all the thinking.
Because I’m more important than you.
Screw that. That would make us angry. It should make you angry too.
Newer managers can feel intimidated or confused by the word strategy. They shouldn’t. In actual fact the process of getting to a strategy should be really simple.
The simple way to strategy
Be aware of the world around you. Look and listen to the marketplace. In most business books, that’s called an external analysis.
What are your customers, competitors and channels doing, and what do they need? What’s driving them?
Then, work out what value you bring them to meet that need. Your product or service needs to create something people will pay for.
That’s your (internal) business capability audit.
Combine your external analysis with your internal audit to work out how you’ll deliver your goal.
Bang, there’s your strategy right there.
Yes, there’s a whole world of different strategies you can choose from. Thank you Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, Henry Mintzberg et al. But there’s no single answer to what’s the best strategy.
Because everyone’s external analysis and internal capability audit will be different.
But if you can keep external + internal -> strategy in your head, then you’re well on the way to being strategic. No need to call in the VP of Strategy.
And it’s something EVERYONE can do. You can find it EVERYWHERE. Even in the crazy world of reality TV.
A random leap, yes. But it’ll make sense, we promise.
The week after the Australian Open tennis finishes is when the main Australian TV networks start to run their headline shows. As Australia nears the end of the summer, we go back to more TV watching. And in particular, reality TV shows grab the most attention.
My Kitchen Rules interpretation of strategic
In recent years, cooking show My Kitchen Rules has been the top-rated reality show this time of year.
The basic premise is each team cooks a 3-course meal. The other contestants and professional judges score each meal. The team with the lowest score at the end goes home. Simple.
But it has been on a bad run. Ratings have slipped.
This year, they’ve changed the format to try to win viewers back. Now each team of 2 is also part of a bigger team (one team of previous competitors versus one team of newcomers).
The scoring is done as one overall score from the big team, rather than individual team scores.
Strategic scoring - in a competition
But this has brought out accusations of ‘strategic scoring’. ‘You scored that a 5 out of 10 when it should have been a 7. You’re scoring strategically’.
What’s interesting though is they use the word ‘strategic’ as a passive aggressive insult. Like being strategic shouldn’t be part of being in a cooking competition.
“Strategic’ is thrown out as shorthand for being sneaky. Of not playing ‘fair’ and judging on the basis of the cooking itself. “You’re so strategic’ is a big insult.
Argh. This drives us absolutely crazy!
Excuse us, but this isn’t what strategic means.
Not by a long shot.
If you have a competition where there can be only one winner, then of course you try to beat your fellow competitors. Isn’t that the whole point?
There’s no breaking of ‘the rules’ going on here. It’s what competition is all about. You need to think and act strategically to win.
We know reality TV isn’t actually real by the way. It’s edited for entertainment, not fact. The “magic” of TV and all that. Yes, yes, yes.
But really Channel 7 should get a damn dictionary. Give it to the contestants. Because being strategic is actually a good thing, not an insult.
Australian Survivor interpretation of strategic
Take a look over at Channel 10 and how they do Australian Survivor, this week’s other big reality show.
24 contestants on a desert island. One is voted off every show until only one remains. The ultimate survivor. On this show, being ‘strategic’ is positively encouraged and the best players are amazing to watch.
It’s compulsive viewing.
A moment of strategic genius
It’s constantly changing. There’s no one guaranteed way to win. But this week, we saw a moment of strategic genius.
One group has divided into 2 alliances. One with more members than the other.
The ‘leader’ of the stronger alliance** approached the leader of the weaker alliance.
He knew once that alliance was gone, his team would turn on him. Stronger players get voted off quicker because they’re seen as threats.
So, he proposed working together with the leader of the weaker alliance. They’d act as though they weren’t working together. But in reality they could manipulate the votes of the alliances as the show went on.
It was like watching the movie Inception where you’re never quite sure what’s real. It was fantastic. And a brilliant demonstration of strategy.
These 2 leaders understood the ‘external environment’. They showed great empathy in understanding who the other players were, and how they might play the game. They understood their own strengths and weaknesses. And then they played the game in a way which moved them towards their goal of being the ultimate survivor.
The person who got voted out was completely oblivious. They didn’t see it coming.
Great strategy in action.
Conclusion - beware the strategist
So when we say beware the strategist, we mean it in 2 ways.
First, beware anyone who feels the need to call themselves a strategist. We can all ‘do’ strategy. YOU should be a strategist in your business.
And second, watch out for those who think strategically, but don’t feel the need to call themselves strategists. They’re the ones who’ll outthink, outplay and outlast you.
Look at strategy as the way for your business to be the Ultimate Survivor in your category.
Be aware of the world around you. Be aware of your business capabilities. Make strategic choices where you think through the consequences of your actions towards a longer-term goal.
Do those things and it’s your competitors who should beware the strategist that is you. It’s just basic business common sense. It’s not brain science. Even if that’s where we started this conversation.
*Incidentally, we did a bit of digging around Dr Joe online after watching the video, In some of his other work he does make some pretty ‘out there’ claims. And there’s a lot of comments online that his “Dr” is actually a Chiropractic qualification. Also the fact that he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. And also that he also features here in the american loons blog. So, we might not take all he says as gospel. But it seems most of the science in this particular video is correct, so enjoy it as a piece of (educational) entertainment.
** For fans of Australian Survivor, this was (Golden God) David, who later went on to win the All-Stars show.