Beware the strategist

Strategy - Chess player

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Snapshot : Why you should beware the strategist – unless you are the strategist. It all starts with brain science – how the neurons in your brain are the fundamental driver of strategic behaviours. We then jump to job titles and why we believe you should beware anyone who includes ‘strategy’ in their job title. And we close off with reality TV and what we learned about ‘strategy’ from the best of this week’s reality TV shows.

When you call yourself ‘three-brains’, you give yourself freedom to make interesting connections with seemingly unconnected thoughts.

So, this week we’re going talk about brain science, job titles and reality TV as a way to share some learnings about the use of strategy. Because connecting three random topics like this helps us look at a complex topic with a different lens.

Like we did with brainstorming, Stephen King and T-shirts when we talked about the creative process recently. And by the end, you’ll understand why we say beware the strategist. 

Brain science

We make no claim to be brain scientists. But who would argue against the fact that the brain is one of the most amazing parts of the human body?

If you work in marketing, creative or e-Commerce, you should spend a lot of time thinking about brains and how they work. And what you can do to influence them. 

So, this week, we came across this interesting 2013 Ted Talk from Dr Joe Dispenza this week. On the (brain) science of changing your mind.

 We haven’t come across him before. And be warned, he gets a little preachy towards the end.

But in the video he manages to explain some complex terms from the world of brain science in a way that most non neuro-scientists would understand.

Explaining the biochemistry of what happens when you literally ‘change your mind’ is a really compelling story.

Whether this science is totally correct or not, we don’t know for sure, but he explains it well.

In fact, most science is rarely totally correct of not anyway, and we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt* (see footnote)

A couple of things stick out for us in the world of brain science. The human brain has around 100 billion neurons (nerve cells). And wow, that is a big number.

Neurons form thoughts, memories and experiences

The neurons are what form the thoughts, memories and experiences that make us who we are.  But what is really interesting is the number of neurons stays fairly constant through your life.

So as each new piece of information you are exposed to is processed, your brain creates new neurons to make sense of that piece of information.

But it can only hold so many neurons.

So, your brain has to fit that neuron somewhere in to the brains overall capacity. And sometimes, old neurons have to go to make way for new neurons.

Which is how new learnings are created. 

Which got us thinking about what we’ve learned about strategy over the years. This ability for neurons to connect and pull from previous experience, thoughts and memories and make sense of what to do with them to create new neurons that drive behaviour is underlying biochemistry that drives how strategic thinking works.

But the important thing, is it means strategy is something we are all capable of doing. All our brains are all made up of similar amounts of neurons. 

And one particular neuron related to our strategy fired in our memory when we started thinking about strategy that we wanted to share.

And it’s the first reason you should beware the strategist.

Job titles

While working in a previous company many years ago, we had the opportunity to work on an acquisition project.

It involved buying a smaller competitor who could add to our category market share and would be complimentary to the brand we were working on. 

This project was led by a very senior leader in the Corporate Development team and we remember it as a great project.

Lots of learning.

We learned how to evaluate other businesses and how to consider how they might fit in to a portfolio. We got to work with some very smart people.

In the end, the acquisition fell through and in fact the company was itself later acquired and broken up.

But during that process, we do remember one particular meeting with the head of the Corporate Development team. She was the strategic lead for the business, advising the board on business issues and future direction.

And there’s one particular piece of advice she gave us that 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 in a business.

You do not need a strategy team in your business

She was adamant that you do not need a strategy team in your business.

Strategy should be a part of everyone’s job, not a separate distinct function or role.

So you should be very wary of anyone who feels the need to put the word ‘strategy’, ‘strategic’ or ‘strategist’ in their job title.

As we said right up front, beware the strategist. Or more correctly, beware the person who feels the need to call themselves a strategist. 

We’ve met many many people whose job titles or LinkedIn profiles call our the strategy world.

You’ve 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.

We understand that what some of these people do might require some specialist knowledge of strategic frameworks, process or models.

But we just look at this job titles, and sigh wearily. 

Strategic frameworks, processes or models are not the strategy itself. The are just the way to get to the strategy.

You don’t need to think about strategy …

And by calling yourself ‘strategy’ something in a business, 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 are 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 and I’ll do all the thinking?

Because I’m more important than you.

We’ve worked with many up and coming managers who feel intimidated or confused by the word strategy, when in actual fact the process of getting to a strategy should be really simple.

And understood and practices at all levels of the business. 

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 consumers, competitors and channels doing and what do they need? What’s driving them? 

Then, work out what value you can bring them to meet that need to deliver on your goal. Your brand, product or service needs to create something that people will pay for.

That’s your (internal) business capability audit.

Combine your external analysis with your internal audit to work out how you will 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 are well on your way to being strategic.

No need to call in the VP of Strategy to work that one out. 

And it is something EVERYONE can do. And nowhere do we see that come to life more than in the crazy world of reality TV. 

Reality TV

This might seem like a random leap. And will require a little explanation for any non-Australian readers. But it will make sense, we promise.

The week after the Australian Open tennis tournament 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 of the show is that each team of two cooks a three 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 on a bad run and ratings have slipped.

This year, they’ve changed up the format to try to win viewers back. Now each team of two is also part of a bigger team (one team are previous competitors, one team are all newcomers).

And the scoring is done one score from the big team rather than individual team scores. 

But this has brought out are accusations of ‘strategic scoring’. ‘You scored that a 5 out of 10 when it should have been a 7 out of ten because you are scoring strategically’.

What’s interesting though is that 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 a shorthand for being sneaky or underhand. Of not playing ‘fair’ and judging on the basis of the cooking itself.  “You’re so strategic’ is thrown out as the ultimate insult.

Argh.

Excuse us, but this is not what strategic means.

Not by a long shot.

If you have a competition where you have the power to take out a fellow competitor and there can be only one winner, then of course you use that power. What’s the point of taking part otherwise?

It’s not breaking ‘the rules’. The whole thing is set up as a competition. And when you have competition, like in business, you play within the rules set out. And the rules state everyone is entitled to score as they see fit.

So of course, you are going to need to be strategic in your thinking to win against your competitors.

We know reality TV is not actually real by the way. It’s edited for entertainment not fact.

But really Channel 7 should get a damn dictionary and 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 the way they do Australian Survivor, the other reality show that started again this week.

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 compelling to watch.

It’s compulsive viewing. 

It’s constantly changing, and there’s no one way to win. We saw a moment of strategic genius this week.

One group has divided into two alliances. One with more members than the other. But the ‘leader’ of the stronger alliance** approached the leader of the weaker alliance because he knew that once the weaker alliance was gone, his team would turn on him.

Stronger players get voted off quicker because they are seen as threats. 

So, he proposed working together with the leader of the lesser alliance but acting as though they weren’t working together so they could manipulate the make up of the alliances as the votes went on.

It was like watching the movie Inception where you’re never quite sure what’s real. It was fantastic. And brilliant demonstration of strategy. 

These two 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 that helped them move forward towards their goal of being the ultimate survivor.

Brilliant.

The person who did get voted out was completely oblivious and didn’t see it coming. Great strategy in action.  

So, beware the strategist

So when we say beware the strategist, we mean two things. Firstly, beware anyone who feels the need to call themselves a strategist. We all ‘do’ strategy. YOU should be a strategist in your business. And secondly, you should beware the strategist of your competitors. But also, see your own ability as a strategist as a way to take them on. Like in Survivor. And it’s really not that hard. You should embrace the world of strategy as a way to win in business.

Be aware of the world around and be self aware of your business capabilities. Make strategic choices where you think through the consequences of your actions towards a longer-term goal If you do those things, then it is your competitors who should beware the strategist that is you. 

That’s just basic business common sense. It’s not brain science. Even if that’s where we started this conversation. Just don’t put the word strategy on your business card. You’ll regret it later.

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

——

* Footnote : 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 David incidentally, who later went on to win the All-Stars show. 

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