Narayan Devanathan from Dentsu recommends strategists focus their energy on outcomes as they are the one thing that will continue to be relevant, regardless of what shape inputs, outputs and throughput take over time. 

What I’m going to say is not going to sound very futuristic – no flying cars (do we have those yet?) or mass transit to Mars (do we really need that?). It’s not even a purely post-pandemic perspective.

But I’m hoping that the futures of strategists starting their careers may be shaped by it.

Computer science gave us the phrase garbage in, garbage out almost 65 years back. I’m less concerned about the garbage part of the phrase as about the fact that strategists’ lives have revolved around input and output. And that nefarious thing in between, throughput.

Why we are wrong to obsess about input, output or throughput

Whether you’re one of those who receives formal training in strategy or learns on the job (with or without active mentoring), your initial years are likely shaped by conversations and tasks around input: research (primary or secondary), observations, discussion, frameworks, templates, techniques, data, technologies, media, and so on.

Or it’s influenced even more strongly by the quality (and, in some worse cases, quantity) of output: research summaries and reports, insights, creative/campaign/brand strategies, briefs and briefings, strategy documents, presentations, pitches, and so on.

I called throughput nefarious earlier. It’s because we’ve borrowed its definition from the wrong field: telecommunications. There, throughput merely refers to the rate of successful message delivery over a communications network/channel (think of digital bandwidth). There’s this notion of goodput, the amount of useful information delivered in a given time, but even that only focuses on output.  

By transferring this phraseology into the field of strategy, we’re blindly borrowing principles from assembly line factories (obsessed over productivity rates), and also missing the distinction between signal and noise. Most importantly, we’re focusing too much on the means and not enough on the ends. And that’s where the problem is.

So, what’s a junior strategist supposed to do?

Actually, much as the industry’s obsession with input, output and throughput is not the junior strategists’ doing, the solution also lies with a re-orientation of those that shape the strategy function, those that run agencies, those that influence the industry. The junior strategist obviously can and should influence the solution, but shaping it is the responsibility of the powers that be.

If, indeed, we want to be obsessed with any one thing, I believe it should be outcomes, from the outset: of careers, of tasks, of strategy development, of problem solving.

Why are we doing what we do? And by this I don’t mean the trend du jour of purpose. Our business is to deliver outcomes to business.

We talk about big picture thinking as one of the key traits of successful strategists. But the way we go about it currently is we throw a lot of dots onto the table, connect them in (what we think are) creative or strategic ways, and create a few different “big pictures.” Here’s a giraffe, what about an aardvark, maybe a narwhal, ever thought of a narwhal, it’s even got a “horn” like a unicorn, if you’re an up-and-coming start-up?

Outcomes, on the other hand, give you the desired big picture upfront, while still giving you the freedom to collect and connect dots in interesting ways. And, as many experts have advised, the opportunities to collect and connect dots from across behavioural science, commerce, data, tech and media are richer than ever before.

Outcomes take away the guessing game from desired destinations. They put the onus on clients to be clear in their briefs, and not obsessed about scope of work and deliverables.

So, if there’s one starting point I’d advocate, it would be to use outcomes as the beacon to chart junior strategists’ career paths. It’s the one thing that will continue to be relevant, regardless of what shape input, output and throughput take over time. 

Strategy and agency leadership should obsess about it and insist upon it as the starting point from clients and partners. And junior strategists, in turn, should adopt it as Step 1 in their journeys forward – whether for a task, strategy, or for their careers.

Future of Strategy 2021

Narayan Devanathan's piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.