I am a strategist by nature and have spent most of my career in strategy. I believe that you can learn about strategy but to be a great strategist takes more than just studying it in a book. A great strategist has vision and passion and is a forward thinker. A great strategist also knows that strategy is a living thing that needs to be based on insights and understanding and needs to be adapted. A great strategist also knows that strategy is not a list of tactics.
Unfortunately strategy is a word that gets bandied around a fair amount without it always being understood. Every Tom, Dick and Harry now has to have a strategy – but that does not mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry has the required skills or expertise to put together a strategy. The result tends to be a “strategy” that is little more than a list of tactics. The result is disjointed, inconsistent and ineffectual marketing and business.
A strategy should be the cornerstone of any business venture – be it a product launch or a new Twitter campaign. The strategy should be based on knowledge and insights – not on what the team leader thinks and knows or what tactics the agency happens to suggest. The strategy should be a road map which provides the team with the directions to success and how to get there. Tactics are then the vehicles used on this road – but they are not the road themselves.
A strategy is also a multifaceted document. Like any good roadmap it features more than just a line where the road is. It also gives you distances, key points on the map, alternative routes, etc. McKinsey’s 7 S model provides a good overview of the various key elements for the Strategy roadmap.
Most important is the shared values. If doing a digital strategy, for example, at its centre should be the corporate strategy and values, and if appropriate the brand strategy and values, as well as the values and needs of the target audience. A strategy should not be a stand alone document but should link to other relevant documents and should be founded on the corporate strategy. I have however rarely seen a brand team approach the corporate strategy team to ask for the latest corporate strategy on which to base the brand strategy. Unfortunately I have also come across brand digital strategies that were not even based on the brand strategy.
A further important element in the strategy is the structure and systems. It is all well and good developing a brilliant, innovative strategy, if the infrastructure or internal systems required to implement it do not exist. In the case of marketing the strategy should also include the structure of the ecosystem (so for example how will the various channels be interlinked). Given the changes in marketing today the strategy should also include the process and systems that need to be put in place to be truly successful, for example cross-functional workgroups. Whilst the industry may be highly siloed the outside world is not. A strategy should suggest how to tackle this issue in order to follow the road successfully without getting diverted onto a side street – what systems need to be in place in order to overcome these obstacles?
Style is also worth mentioning. As one progresses down the road will the style remain the same or will it evolve? Should the style be a mirror image of the corporate style or is there a need for different style in order to achieve the objectives. Having a clear idea of style before going to an agency is worthwhile as it gives the agency a clearer direction and ensures that everyone has the same idea in mind.
Last but not least are skills and staff. If there is a need for more headcount this needs to be flagged in the strategy – and if that headcount cannot be met then the strategy should also provide an alternative route. When it comes to implementation these elements are also very important. A great strategy will fail if there are not the right people with the right skills to implement it. Education is a key element to many successful strategies. In particular when looking at “new” areas, such as digital, education is critical to success. If you come up with a great strategy but people just do not understand it or the required steps, then it will fail. Providing clear directions around the education needed for the strategy to succeed is very useful.
Finally when looking at skills and staff there also needs to be the acceptance that not everyone has the required skills to develop a strategy. This is why consultancies like McKinsey do so well – they are strategy experts. However too often strategy is left to the team and very few will have the sort of expertise that McKinsey does. Many of these strategies consist of no more than a mission statement and a list of tactics. There is minimal research behind this, little analysis and very little direction. The result is a document called “strategy” that is however nothing close to being a real strategy.
This is a huge flaw as the strategy is the most vital element to any business. It is worth investing in doing a strategy well up front and providing sufficient resourcing for this – including for market research and external expertise. Managers should accept that they may not have the required skills – or indeed time – to develop a great strategy – and should reach for support (internally or externally). Strategy is the foundation stone and as such it needs to be robust and taken seriously – and any manager handed a list of tactics called “strategy” should be very concerned.
The strategy is after all your roadmap and if you have the wrong map you may take a disastrous wrong turn. Invest in the map first – then you can judge what type of car you need.