Strategic thinking is getting flabbier and flowerier by the minute, with fluffy language that is highly evocative, imaginative and inspirational but, says Gareth Kay, is devoid of the brutal rigour needed to create a robust foundation on which to build a brand or business.
I’ve just spent the past 48 hours back in Manchester, a city rightly storied for its social progressiveness and musical legacy but also its laconic, direct wit. It’s quite a difference to living in San Francisco where far too many conversations feel like you are watching a foreign language movie with the wrong subtitles. For all its magic, directness is not one of the city’s strong points.
This lack of clarity and directness is increasingly something I’m seeing from clients and from those who work in the industries that advise them. Strategic thinking is getting flabbier and flowerier by the minute. More and more, we are seduced by the strategic equivalent of shiny object syndrome. Fluffy language that is highly evocative, imaginative and inspirational but is devoid of the brutal rigour that comes from making the trade-offs that create a strong, robust foundation on which to build a brand or business. It all leads to flabby strategy. And flabby strategy leads to unfit brands and businesses.
So how do you know if your brand or business is getting flabby? Well I think there are four key signs. The first of these starts right at the beginning with the clarity of objective-setting. Too many objectives fall into one of two camps. Either they are analytical and devoid of imagination, driven by metrics that are easy to measure rather than necessarily the right things to measure. Or, on the other hand, they are highly evocative but meaningless. You hear them and leave the meeting in awe but a day later you realise they are unactionable and unmeasurable. Brand and business clarity begins with brutally simple, clear objectives. The OKR framework of objectives and key results recognises this and its use has been one reason why Google has been able to retain clarity throughout one of the fastest periods of growth of any company in corporate history. It’s a unicorn, not just in the typical Silicon Valley definition, but in its ability, by and large, to have a brutally simple strategy driven by absolute clarity of objectives.
The second sign is to test if the insight your brand is built on is truly an insight or actually an observation masquerading as an insight. Far too many insights are generic observations on an audience (‘people who don’t buy brands’is probably the most common and ironic example of this). The real value comes from when you take the time to observe the fundamental human problem behind the business problem and then boil it down until it can be reduced no more; to find a way of looking at the world and the human problem that sheds new light on the challenge and transforms it into an opportunity.
The third test of health is to see whether the decisions made informing the strategy are truly decisions and that real, tough choices have been made. Far too many times companies will claim their strategy is razor sharp and based on tough decisions. But the reality is somewhat different as they fail to meet what Roger Martin, the ex-Dean of the Rotman School of Business, describes as the opposites test. Every strategic decision should face a simple test: could you make the opposite choice without looking stupid? For example, that far too common strategy of ‘great customer service’ fails if you consider the alternative is to deliberately offer ‘terrible customer service’. Great strategy is differentiated and distinctive. And that means your competitors, however you frame the market you’re in, should feel opposed to what you do and make money doing that. Consider the world of office software. Microsoft for years built a stellar business on personal productivity and security. It took bravery from the likes of Dropbox and Google to deviate from this and build a brand based on better satisfying the needs of teams over individuals.
And this example brings me on to my final test: a healthy strategy is focused on what you do and what you deliver while a flabby strategy is reliant on smoke and mirrors. Strategy, for all the PowerPoint we create, is all about delivery. Dropbox and Google delivered their strategy through a new experience ranging from how it worked (see what others are doing) to how it was purchased (we sell to teams, not companies or individuals). Yes, advertising and communication is still an important amplifier and signaller of any strategy, but any successful brand or business today can no longer be reliant on it. Recent experience with Nike and Apple has proved this to me. Two businesses built on amazing brand stories are now being let down by their inability to deliver their brand promises in their customer experience. Actions and behaviour are a direct part of strategy, not an afterthought.