More than ever before, strategy has to be about getting to the truth – and that requires both the generosity to question and the confidence to doubt, says Jo Arden, Chief Strategy Officer, Ogilvy UK.
This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.
The word and the notion of ‘query’ rocketed in the 70’s with the invention of Standard Query Language (SQL). It’s discovery, by IBM researchers Raymond Boyce and Donald Chamberlin provided a system for extracting information from databases and made previously impenetrable data sources accessible and useful. In that sense at least, the future of strategy might look remarkably like the past.
Strategy, at least in my field of strategy within communications agencies, faces some tough questions. The continuing talent crisis has collided with a re-examining of what this role will be beyond the next five years. Employing more query could help us find some answers.
Query is defined as: a question, especially one expressing doubt. That element of doubt has never been more important. We’re living in a post truth world, but in work we are increasingly using tools we can’t trust and building work cultures which blunt our instinct to challenge.
Curiosity has always been foundational in the strategy skillset. Being interested in the world around us and the people in it is essential. It is impossible to be good at the job, or even enjoy the job unless you find the fabric of life fascinating. But curiosity is not the same at query: it’s a bland and benign compromise and can get in the way of the truth.
There are some major areas where questioning with doubt could set strategy up well for the future, let’s start with the obvious:
- AI. Putting aside the existential threats that come into any discussion about AI, it’s clearly a useful tool for strategists in their day to day. At the most basic level, it’s instant access to new topics, it gets us past the empty page, and opens up new areas for discovery as we get to grips with a new brief.
- Skills. Connected to AI in some ways, we have the opportunity now to question the skills strategy needs. We’ve taken tentative steps away from the myopic, ‘good university’ mindset to hiring but there is still a collective fetish for academic-esque ability. Old wisdom was that if people came from good universities and were schooled in the rigour and pace of digesting, analysing and proposing points of view, they would be well suited for strategy in an agency environment. If that were every true, it feels less so now.
- Our working world. Hybrid working has brought some benefits – careers are more open to more people than they were when we needed to work in the office most days. But hybrid-working has made people more likely to experience poor mental health, to feel anxious and isolated from colleagues. Workload has grown into the spaces that we naively believed would become free, we work longer hours with less interaction and less ‘casual query’ than ever before.
AI is also at the sharp end of where query beats curiosity. The quality of output is only as good as the query we craft. Like all data sources, bias is in-built, the information it generates is a product of the materials it sources and the flavour of truth they represent. Approaching what we source through an AI with the same caution as approach all other opinion will get more important, not less, as the technology develops.
As discussed, AI can already do some of the heavy lifting and will inevitably do more of that better in time. The job today demands more ingenuity, resourcefulness and more ‘applied query’. It needs people who can look at an issue and see not only the flaws but how to fix them. Strategy today is much more practical application than it is theory.
Strategists are alone more, mistaking getting stuff done for getting into the important stuff and they are losing the ability to query well. The lack of time strategist have for what they need to do has meant that proper, interrogative research has declined. Strategists can spend months without hearing from the people their work is aimed at, and we have exacerbated that by constructing a working world where they are denied the company of peers too. Their ability to query is compromised and the success of an overly-remote work style should be in doubt too.
Some approaches embrace query better than others. Behavioural Science, an increasingly fundamental aspect of strategy in communications and beyond, is built on doubt. It asks us to interrogate human motivation and observe and unpick behaviour. It is query at its most persistent, assuming the truth has been, so far, unknowable.
Strategy has to be about getting to the truth: that requires both the generosity to question and the confidence to doubt. This is not about background, education, or even intellect – this is about an innate interest in people and just enough scepticism to find out what makes them truly tick.