Great Strategy Rises from the Mud
I am your fairy tale. Your dream. Your wishes and desires, and I am your thirst and your hunger and your food and your drink.
— Klaus Kinski
Klaus may well have been referring to what often eludes business operators — Great Strategy. You recognize it instantly when you see it. The better your instincts, the faster this happens.
But how do you come up with one?
Early in my career, without the faintest notion of what strategy was, I mostly winged it with some vague notion of competitive differentiation.
Then I got introduced to some great minds: Porter, Grove, Moore, Ohmae, Davidow and Sun Tzu to name a few.
They armed me with lots of great frameworks to think strategically. But the strategies I continued to come up with remained far from ‘great’.
Practice proved way harder than theory. But practice I did, with some successes, some failures, and lots of ho-hum in-between.
The failures and ho-hum taught me a lot more than the successes (as it tends to be difficult to attribute success to luck vs. skill). Here are my top three lessons/insights into what goes into developing Great Strategy.
1) Simple + Focused
Let’s start with the end in mind.
Great strategy is simple and focused. Crisp. Precise (very clear on who, what and why, as well as what is not priority and why).
But simple doesn’t necessarily mean obvious. This is because it is based on some not-so-obvious insight.
If your strategy is complex, incorporating lots of cute twists and turns, beware. You’re probably over-thinking, and/or don’t have a good grasp on the problem you’re trying to solve. The more grandiose, the more elaborate, the higher the odds it’s poorly thought out or prone to failure.
Simple/Focused >> Complex/Unfocused.
The latter is incomplete and will most likely lead to scattered execution. You tango with complexity as a part of strategy development, but your job as a strategist is to keep stripping, simplifying strategy to it’s core essence.
And tango you must.
You also don’t want to start and stop with Simple + Focused. In this case, you risk over-simplifying, overlooking or missing important insights about your market/customers. This is how you end up with obvious, hollow, predictable or just plain wrong — not the stuff of Strategy Valhalla.
This duality of simplicity and complexity is why Great Strategy is like Art.
You want to end at Simple + Focused, but the Strategy Gods will demand you take the scenic route there.
2) Great Strategy Rises from the Mud
Speaking of the scenic route…
Great strategy rises from the mud. Which means it grows in the depths of the dark, uncomfortable unknown. Your job is having the courage to stay there for as long as it takes.
This involves starting broad and digging deep. Into your data. Your customers. Your market. Your noise to signal ratio will be very high during the initial discovery process. It’ll be tempting to grab on to the first signal, to just be done with it. There will be many local maxima, i.e., “good enough” strategies or insights that emerge.
But you’re not looking for “good enough”. You’re looking for Great.
I once worked on a strategic initiative to segment our customers (B2B). We already had a crude customer segmentation (equivalent to small/medium/large) but it didn’t do much to inform Product, Sales or Marketing strategy. We worked on the discovery process for a few months. It was brutal. We had a ton of data, lots of ideas, and lots of dead ends. At times, it felt we were going in circles. But as uncomfortable as it was, we sat in the not knowing. We kept poking, prodding, hypothesizing. And just when it felt like we were hopelessly lost, we caught a faint signal in the muck.
That faint signal turned out to be a huge insight into our customers. It completely changed the tone of the strategic conversations that followed.
But we never would’ve found it if we hadn’t had the faith to stumble around in the dark like we did. The temptation to end this was strong throughout, but I knew clinging to the comfort of the known would produce a meh strategy. It paid off. We now had a beautiful insight to get to our Simple + Focused.
A gift from the mud.
“There is the mud, and there is the lotus that grows out of the mud. We need the mud in order to make the lotus.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
3) The “I” Word
So how do you know to keep rolling around in the mud?
How do you know where to look and what to look for?
How do you recognize the faintest of signals?
How do you discern local maxima from the real thing?
There, I said it.
Something so powerful, yet often treated with much disdain in business.
Intuition won’t solve your strategy for you. But it can be an incredibly reliable navigator. Consider any intuitive nudges you receive as a form of non-local, non-linear intelligence. An intelligence far better equipped to make sense of the vast, patchwork terrain before you than the (mostly linear) logical mind.
You still need logic to analyze and make sense of the information in front of you, but don’t let logic drown out what your gut may be trying to tell you. Allow yourself to (gasp!) feel.
Any time you get a nudge, follow it. Sometimes it won’t immediately make sense. But you’ll know there’s something because you won’t be able to help yourself. Remain open and curious.
It can be messy. It will take faith to keep going while the rational mind protests. Allow it to take a back seat when this happens. Yes, you need your mind, but don’t let it interrupt the creative process.
It may look like you’re getting no where for a while. But if you remain curious, open and sharp, you will immediately sense when the mess starts taking shape into something beautiful.
This is how non-linear progress looks like. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, maybe something, nothing and then a bolt of lightning – a key insight. You just have to be open enough to receive when it presents itself.
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
— Albert Einstein
When you set out to form a new strategy, you don’t (shouldn’t) know where you’ll end up. It is an emergent process, revealing itself gently out of a complex matrix of market, product, customers, competitors, your fears and your aspirations.
You just need to be patient with the process. Most people and companies will not do this as it doesn’t fit into a neat box or framework. Which is why massive spoils and value creation await those bold enough to devote themselves to it.
Frameworks are very helpful, but they won’t do the work for you. Great Strategy, by definition is unique. Not unlike a bold or striking piece of Art. You can follow/idolize teachers, take all the art classes you want. Ultimately the uniqueness and novelty of your Art will be a reflection of the uniqueness you bring to the canvas.
I advise companies on Strategy: https://www.arthart.ca/
I write on personal growth here: https://noheartnoglory.substack.com/