With a growing negativity towards strategy, is it time to take the strategic debate in a different direction, asks Malcolm White? He thinks strategy can be looked at in an entirely different way and offers a formula to do this.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So said former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. Now Tyson’s not someone to disagree with, but I don’t think he’s right when it comes to the status of strategy in marketing communications today. It’s not events that are kryptonite to strategy, but attitudes. I am increasingly encountering a growing negativity towards strategy, which surprises me because strategy has never been more ubiquitous and is no longer confined to military history or business practice as it used to be.

The negative attitude to strategy is encapsulated by something another World Champion said recently in a press conference. Asked to talk about his strategy for an important forthcoming final, five times World Professional Snooker Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan replied: “Strategy? Talk about strategy and you lose me. I play with instinct. I go out there with a cue and some chalk and play from my gut feeling. I play to make something happen. I am an aggressive player, and I let my opponent worry about me.”

I was reminded of how Ronnie ‘The Rocket’ thinks about strategy when a client of mine asked (imagine the following said in a tone of rising exasperation): “Why do we need a strategy? Can’t we just get on with doing some good ads?”

In my experience, there are two main reasons why increasing numbers of people like Ronnie and my client are prejudiced against strategy. First, ‘strategy’ is a concept that is defined in a bewildering number of ways. It’s an elusive and rather slippery subject which makes it difficult to talk about with any clarity or any precision, and most people don’t feel comfortable with things that make their head hurt. The journalist and former Member of Parliament here in the UK, Matthew Parris, ably expressed this particular challenge to strategy when he observed: “There exist few modern circumstances where the removal of the word ‘strategy’ from any passage containing it, fails to clarify matters.”

Second, and perhaps most importantly, while we know that strategy is a precursor to action and is always a means to an end and not an end in itself, it is too often perceived and criticised these days as a delay, or even as a delaying tactic. The net effect of these issues is that a healthy scepticism about strategy can easily shade into something that looks and sounds like aggressive anti-intellectualism.

So, what can be done to reverse what I think is a worrying trend? My recommendation is that it’s time to take the strategic debate in quite a different direction. I want to propose a completely different way of talking about strategy. Perhaps surprisingly, what I’m recommending is a formula to help to explain strategy.

My formula is O × D × V × P > C divided by an abbreviation for competition (‘Compt.’). Bear with me here. O stands for a crystal-clear definition of the objective or outcome; D for dissatisfaction with the status quo; V represents a vision of the desired future state; and, last but not least, is P which refers to the simple practical steps which are required if consumers are to act on the vision. Because commercial strategies don’t work in a vacuum, the equation also needs to take account of competition, which is represented here by ‘Compt.’.

On the left-hand side of this formula are the factors which marketers and their agencies must consider, and define, if a strategy is to work. I’ve found it helpful to use this formula as a checklist for my own strategies and also, by giving each factor a score from 0 to 5, a way of assessing the likelihood of success of the marketing strategies of my clients and their competitors.

It’s vital that any strategy has all, not just some, of these elements. If any of the factors are missing, the effect is like multiplying any number by zero (the result, of course, being nothing), and that’s precisely the effect that an imperfect or flawed strategy will have out there in the real world: nothing.

All these factors, multiplied together, must be greater than the factor on the right-hand side (C), which stands for the economic or psychological costs of change.

There are a number of advantages of looking at strategy in this way. Although the formula appears daunting at first, actually dividing strategy into its constituent parts makes it easier to understand because it is easier to ‘see’. And, as we’ve all known from childhood, taking something apart is the best way of appreciating how something works. And so it is with strategy. In fact, I’d even claim that this formula is a new strategy for strategy.

For more on the future of strategy, sign up for WARC's Future of Strategy debate in Cannes