Time for strategists to sweat the small stuff

I make it 12. That’s at least the number of times I have recently heard someone say that they don’t want a strategy deck to be ‘just another pretty presentation.’ That comment is indicative of a number of things:

  • Previous strategic documents haven’t connected to the goals of their implementation teams
  • The audience don’t have the right skillset to understand the strategy
  • The strategy should have been more plan than principle, based on the pressures of the business
  • The client has been working with inferior strategists

It may well be all four. But it’s also likely the strategists concerned stopped sweating the small stuff, mistaken in the believe that they didn’t need to understand or properly explain how their strategy was going to be implemented if they were to maintain a purity of vision. Strategists only need to worry about the bigger picture, right? Not quite.

Previous strategic documents haven’t connected to the goals of their implementation teams

One of the key questions you should ask before embarking on any strategic piece of work is whether the business is even solving the right problem in the first place. But just as important is ‘how are you going to use this?’ That question isn’t asked very often because the assumption is that strategy sets a vision, which is often mistaken for ‘inspiration’, one that that doesn’t have a functional purpose other than to excite stakeholders and creative teams about the potential ideas that could emerge.

This perception might come from working with brand strategists, who appear to focus on sentiment and broad statements. However, great brand strategists develop their vision with a deep insight into whether the creative teams or comms planners developing those great ideas are going to be able to use very specific sentiment to make something real, in order to solve a problem they have identified. They can only do that if they know who is going to use their strategy and how.

Business and experience strategists have even less room for vagueries. Our strategies usually have hard ROI models or KPIs attached to them, which means it’s obviously within our best interests to ensure we are setting a clear path for the implementation teams in order to mitigate failure. We need to care about what’s possible and likely in order to succeed.

The audience don’t have the right skillset to understand the strategy

You always have to assume that, even if you think you are writing for a specialist audience, someone is going to read your report one day with zero knowledge of why you are doing it and what it’s for. So, please, start eliminating jargon now. It’s one of the best things strategists can do for themselves and for the discipline itself. It differentiates marketing schlock from the critical thinking and the problem solving we should be associated with.

In addition, if you have the narrative right, then everyone should be able to follow along. In its simplest terms, all strategies should follow a clear narrative:

  • What’s the current situation or landscape?
  • What’s the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What’s the vision for solving that problem?
  • What’s the solution?
  • What are the next steps?

If you get the narrative right, and avoid jargon, it will be appropriate for multiple audiences.

The strategy should have been more plan than principle, based on the pressures of the business

Times are somewhat lean in Australian agency land. Clients seem to be wanting a tremendous amount of bang for their buck, sometimes having a truly unrealistic expectation of what is achievable, often by relatively inexperienced resources within a very short space of time. It isn’t uncommon for organisations to expect a full landscape review of their entire industry, domestic and international, and for that document to highlight opportunities for innovation (obviously that no other competitor has considered)…all within a day or two. I’m sure the same pressures are not placed on consultancies, but digital, product and creative agencies have a reputation for fast turnover and strategists are held to the same expectations. It is much easier, under these time pressures, to deliver a ‘light touch’ document focusing on principles only, one which ends up being of no use to anyone. So push back on time constraints. Expectations over timings can absolutely be reset, but what cannot is the need for us to be useful within the time we have. In this instance, we need to help our clients join the dots from principle to plan.

We also need to remind everyone that strategy is not just a phase of a project, although it is often treated as such based on a waterfall delegation of resources (the strategists start the project, the ‘doers’ take over). It is an overarching plan for improvement. That is why anyone on a project should understand how to use your strategy, or at least how it is relevant to their part of the process, which often means it needs to be more plan than principle.

The client has been working with inferior strategists

This happens. There are very many inexperienced people on the market because demand is high. But this is not unique to strategy. Any discipline that works under a broad label makes it easy for standards to vary greatly. For example, within UX, there are designers who pass off gray scale layouts as wireframes and call themselves UXers, even though they have no background in research or creating experience frameworks. Within creative, there are artworkers who claim to be art directors. We shouldn’t begrudge the ambitious for having a go. They will be tested at some point and either sink or swim, like the rest of us.

However, as mentioned in a previous post, a good strategist should be able to do the following:

  • Uncover insights
  • Find opportunities
  • Plan how to turn opportunities into reality
  • Determine how to measure success

The last two points mean that they should have a working knowledge of how a strategy will play out in their specific territory.

In the same post, I also talk about whether the right strategist has been engaged. Are you building a brand, a campaign, a product range, a service, a new operation…or do you need an innovation strategist, which can fall into all three? Sometimes the wrong strategist has been assigned to the wrong problem, giving an unfair perception of their abilities.

So learn to sweat the small stuff

I’d like to think that strategists are as useful to any project as the builders of the solution. However, it would seem that the only way to remove the perception that strategy is ‘just another pretty presentation’ is to make sure you are delivering enough detail, either in your plan or in your narrative, so that there is no mistaking its use.

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