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Beware the strategist

Board level view of a chessboard as you are playing black and your opponent is moving their white queen

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Why read this? : We look at why you don’t need to call yourself a strategist to do strategy. We all have the right neurons in our brains to think, and thinking drives strategy. Anyone can do it, no matter their job title. We also share some pop-culture views on what being strategic means. Read this to learn why you don’t need to be a strategist to be good at strategy. 

In idea generation, the best ideas come when you connect things together which seem like they shouldn’t connect. 

That’s where the idea for this week’s article came from. Random thoughts about brain science, job titles and reality TV came together for an article idea about strategy and strategists

It’s similar to how our recent brainstorming, Stephen King and T-shirts article broke down creative problem solving. By the end of this article, you’ll understand why it’s called beware the strategist. 

A rope net with many connections

Brain science

We’re not brain scientists. But who’d argue against the brain being one of the most amazing parts of the human body?

Those who work in marketing, creative or e-Commerce need to understand how their target audience’s brains work. 

Our brains are what makes us think, feel and do stuff

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.

Skull - Marketing Creative Selling
We haven’t come across him before. And be warned, he gets a little 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, unused and unneeded neurons. 

Young Girl reading book

The new replaces the old

New learnings replace 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.

Job titles

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.

Man's hand holding a business card that says A.Douchebag - Strategist

We learned how to evaluate other businesses and how to analyse their fit to our portfolio. We got 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’re not unsympathetic. A job with the word strategy in it sounds important. We get it. 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. 

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 actually 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.

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

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

First step.

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.

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

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 will be different. And everyone’s internal capability will be different.

But if you can keep that process in your head, external + internal => strategy, then you’re well on the way to being strategic. No need to call in the VP of Strategy to work that one out. 

And it’s something EVERYONE can do. You can find it EVERYWHERE. Even in the crazy world of reality TV. 

Reality TV

That might seem like a big random leap. And will require a little explanation for non-Australian readers. 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, we see reality TV shows grabbing the most attention. 

My Kitchen Rules interpretation of strategic

In recent years, the cooking show My Kitchen Rules has been the top-rated 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).

Overhead shot of two people preparing a salad, chopping lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados

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.

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

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. 

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

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.

Brilliant.

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. 

Board level view of a chessboard as you are playing black and your opponent is moving their white queen

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. 

Check out our guides on brand strategy and e-Commerce strategy if you’d like to know more. Or contact us, so we can help you find your own inner strategist. 

Photo credit

Chess : Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Rope Netting : Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

Skull : Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Girl reading magazine : Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Business card (adapted) : Photo by Anomaly on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Food preparation : Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

Frustrated Man (adapted) : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Person holding light bulb : Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash

Footnotes

*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.

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