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How to shape your next strategy

Strategy shapes

What’s your favorite shape to receive or give a strategy in?

Perhaps, it’s a circle, a square, a pyramid, a doughnut, an onion, a house, or a keyhole. Maybe you like a shape in a shape – a triangle in a cloud, a doughnut in an onion, or a World of Warcraft map in a Rubix Cube. It’s amazing what you can do with strategy, isn’t it? There are so many shapes to choose from. And the great thing about strategy-in-shapes is that it makes your thinking look very deliberate, impossibly official, and crazy to mess with. But if you want to get better at strategy, it’s time you messed with your shapes.

Strategy-in-shapes is so… deliberate and hard to affect if you’re down the assembly line from it. Strategy-in-shapes-by-committee is even more difficult to argue with: “Look, we’ve spent 12 months working on this perfectly reasoned bit of thinking and it fits flawlessly into the shape. We all agreed to the shape. We’ve done what the shape wants. We can’t change it now that you have to work with it and you don’t think you have anywhere to start.”

For new planners, permission to fill in the shape is like becoming Willy Wonka of your very own strategy factory. The moment makes you giddy with power and possibility. You flirt with the idea of a pay-rise and ponder the award entry you’ll have to write later in the year. Finally, they’ve recognized your talent.

You can always tell the first time a planner is anointed filler-in-of-the-shape. Mania leaks from her pores: a sense of orgasmic clout mixed with haunting memories of the morning after she lost her virginity. She bustles around the office bumping into interns, she stays back late at work believing the dark hours will reveal the shape’s mystical cravings, she blurts out half-thoughts hoping someone latches onto them but not really wanting to hear disagreement.

“Obey the shape. Obey the shape. Obey the shape.”

Eventually, the shape draws from her all that it needs then flings her back into the hairy embrace of her broken office chair. Disheveled, she closes her laptop and promises to catch up on sleep on the weekend.

The real shape of things to come

Before you call me a shapeist, I need you to know that I’m pro-shape. I remember having shape-envy in my first months as a planner. It all seemed so… succinct and logical. I longed for the keys to my own shape. And clients appeared to find shapes and shape-process desirable in an agency: both helped structure their year and defend non-numbers thinking to the C-Level (typically logistics or sales people). Yes, shapes have sucked us all in at some point.

As shape-shifters, it makes sense that shapes seduce us. Daily pattern-play is the strategist’s remit; shape obedience is natural. However, the problem with much of our industry’s shape fixation is that it focuses on the shapes that our strategies go into more than the shapes that go into our strategies.

Brand consultants (internal and external) have field days with senior marketers desperate to believe in models and shapes. Inheriting these things is usually very frustrating. The more you see, the more you realize how much of the same thinking fills them – especially in the CPG sector. So many brands are ‘inspiring’ and ‘empowering’ people. Their tones are so frequently ‘accessible’, ‘simple but not simplistic’ (thank you for the revealing clarification… again) and ‘confident’. So many of the insights merely justify the pre-ordained message (the number of times I’ve seen a product that has loose cholesterol-lowering claims in recent years paired with an insight of ‘people don’t know that X lowers cholesterol’…)… and, yes, they stop at a message or a trite brand essence (‘Empowering confidence’).

By all means, use the shape – but don’t let the shape use you.

The building blocks for your shapes

If you are helping a business market itself, I believe the strategist’s role is to create new meaning for that business. The fallback approach I sometimes go to is here: How to do account planning – a simple approach. Without repeating the whole thing here, the concepts I find myself playing with most now are:

  • Problems
  • Insights – unspoken human truths
  • Strategy statements – one-line summary of the novel solution
  • Brand purposes – how the brand will serve humanity
  • Experience plans – how people interact with the brand and related topics
  • Ideas (see How to explain an idea – a megapost) – novel concepts
  • Three-act campaign structures – story-making

Most strategy I’ve worked on in recent years has required quick thinking – about 2-3 projects each year have involved more than a month’s worth of strategy. However, the amount of time you have depends on the type of agencies you work in, how many brands and projects you’re across and the type of category your clients are in.

My go-to sources for stimulus:

  • Qualitative research – store visits, stakeholder interviews, consumer research, expert interviews, using the product (if you can)
  • Social listening – I’m trying hard to believe otherwise but I find the most useful way to find interesting stuff socially is to sit there manually and go through a lot of stuff. My main aim is to turn up unexpected language, image sharing and behavior. I try to identify typologies for hashtags, images, communities, commenting language, abbreviations and so on.
  • Keyword research – search patterns and volumes (language, seasonality, geography, etc.)
  • Behavioral economics – I have various Google Scholar alerts set up and find that I can get my head around most subjects with a day of research (many papers summarize other people’s findings). Sometimes I’ll do keyword research to try to identify the language that academics use so there can be back-and-forth as you hone in. For instance, when I was trying to understand why and how people donate, a lot of the research gathers under ‘charitable giving’ and ‘altruism’ – not words I used to start my search. Websites like Physorg are useful too.
  • Consumer reviews – yes, more social listening. It’s usually worth mapping the attributes that people use to rate a product or shop. Often you’ll find market research that paints another picture but your own labeling of the attributes may be more provocative.
  • Business and financial points of view – find articles about the company and category, annual reports and so on.
  • Analytics – website analytics, previous campaign analytics, social analytics. What content gets discovered most and why? What content converts the most and why? Where is the content opportunity?
  • Always be reading – I try to have a non-fiction book going most of the time. Over the past two years, I’ve read a lot about behavioral economics, writing, screenwriting and story-making, the history of ideas, psychology and social sciences. There are anecdotes and research riddled through these sorts of books that can directly influence your thinking or give you somewhere to start. I’m also in love with Zite – a great content aggregator – and trawl it daily for news in these areas.
  • Life – while it’s important not to assume you are your audience, developing the habit of paying attention in life and banking observations will come in handy. Personally, becoming a father and needing to understand a whole lot of new information and decisions has been very useful in making me pay more attention more often.

The best tools for strategy shape-making

A pencil and some paper.

When I was about 20, a guy who became my brother-in-law helped me get a $100-a-week job in a digital agency. I was making websites at the time – spending hours playing with Geocities, rudimentary HTML and even more rudimentary design. Like most other website-makers I worked with, my tendency was to jump onto the computer to think. However, Kevin encouraged us to turn our monitors off and think on paper.

How often have you owed someone a presentation and the first thing you’ve done is open PowerPoint or Keynote? And then how often have you kept making slides forgetting that you need to think through what your point is and how best to make it?

This reflex is rampant – and while, ultimately, you need to do what works for you, I’d encourage you to try the analog way for a while. Having a pencil (or pen) poised above paper (grab some photocopier orphans) is a beautiful and deliberate act, and helps you focus on what you write instead of getting distracted by the font you’ve chosen or another application blinking at you.

The other advantage of pencil and paper is that when you share your thinking, this loose format makes it feel like half-thoughts. This is excellent for two reasons: you need to be honest with yourself that they are half-thoughts (don’t latch on to your own thinking too readily), and other people will understand that you are sharing thinking with them and not just trying to convince them with some strategy shape or formal presentation.

Writing your strategy into shape

1. Gather your stimulus

You obviously need some useful information about the brand, the business objectives, the products, the competition, culture and human behavior to start with. I’ll give myself brackets of time to dig – maybe it’s a day to dig through the behavioral economics related to the subject, for example. Yes, I use the computer to save and screengrab but I’ll mindmap the most potent stuff on paper. I want something easy to carry around and point to.

2. Shape-sprint

Once I’ve grabbed some stimulus, I’ll play with it – hopefully in fast sprints (perhaps thirty minutes to an hour) – and bank some strategies, then move on and dig in other directions. I trust that my subconscious will help me find shapes when I’m on the subway, at the gym, taking a shower, and having lunch, so my aim is to fill myself with stimulus and give myself some strategies to argue about with myself. So, I tend to dig then sprint and let it all percolate… then repeat.

I love doing this but I tend to disappear from my family during this phase and I develop mini bouts of Tourrettes as I utter half-thoughts to anyone in hearing distance.

I try not to latch onto one line of thinking too early. One way to avoid early shape-latching is to give yourself a number of strategies to hit in a certain period of time. Perhaps you can come up with ten strategies in a day or two. Then you must find peace in the turbulence and force those ten lines of thinking out.

Stephen King talks about writing with the door closed, however, I find it useful to close the door and think, open it to share and debate, and then close it to hone it. Every now and then you’ll work with a bunch of people and can consistently deliver great thinking without closing the door ever. Still, at some point, someone will need to take the thinking and write it down in a way that compels others.

What actually gets written during a shape-sprint? As little as possible. I aim for unexpected shapes and may simply jump off one behavior or insight to a strategy and then bank it. And then I may try to summarize the strategy in a word – brutal reductionism.

Let’s look at an examplePatagonia makes for an interesting study. I haven’t worked with them so I may be completely off the mark, however, I was watching videos of the CEO a while back and was curious about his ideas. Whether or not this is written in their brand strategy, the insight that drives Patagonia is this: getting people out into Mother Nature makes them more interested in protecting it. So Patagonia’s purpose is to arm people with the clothing and equipment to help them get the most out of adventures with Mother Nature. The purpose is born from a belief that the world won’t save itself – people need to up their ante. And if they follow through on the CEO’s own ideas (as they appear to), the company is not merely an outdoor-wear brand – they’re really an environmental activism company. And with those few thoughts in place – you can start to describe how the business (and the people in it) will behave – what content makes sense, which products, what sorts of CSR activity. If you were bold, you’d try to measure how many adventures in nature that people who buy Patagonia take – and you’d try to compare it to other brands as well as prove to what degree Patagonians helped the environment.

So, in a Patagonia shape-sprint, that one CEO quote would lead to this one strategy which we’ll call ‘the environmental activism’ strategy. I’d park it and try to find another nine – some of which may come off image-sharing behavior, or research about what motivates people to help the environment, and so on.

My checkpoints:

  • Is it based in truth? Yes – the CEO’s own words.
  • Is it unique and unexpected? Yes. Well, at this stage, I’m not familiar with a brand in the same category as Patagonia that talks about being an environmental activist. If we ended up liking this area, we’d double-check its uniqueness.
  • Can we do something with it? Yes. It’s a strong purpose and leads to a lot of ideas about helping people take adventures in the outdoors. We’d then define what sorts of adventures for what sorts of people.

3. Re-write your shapes – This time, with paradox!

Last year, I was preparing for a pitch and found myself stuck in meetings about a pitch presentation riddled with long words. I started translating the marketing speak and brand fluff into plain English, to which someone said: “Oh, that’s nice. Let’s make the presentation folks-y.” I replied: “The aim is for people to understand it.” (For more, read Word traps planners plan themselves into)

Marketing-speak is not your friend. It is a sign of insecurity and lack of clarity. To shape strong strategy, you need to embrace strong, visual language. Where lateral thinking is bringing things together in a way that hasn’t existed before (and that is useful), I often try to play with words that don’t typically fit together but make interesting new sense when they do – paradoxes.

Perhaps, you have stumbled on provocative strategies in your shape-sprint. Test yourself to write them differently and even more provocatively. Again, give yourself a number to aim for. Take your favorite three strategies and re-write them ten times each. Keep making them shorter and punchier. Play with words that don’t seem to belong – make new shapes.

4. Shape your argument in a short story

Strategy is an argument. So, why not get your argument straight before you present it? If your team favors one or two strategies from the steps above, take the strategies and write one- to two-page stories for them. Take someone on the journey you’ve been on: from the problem, to the twist, to the ‘what if we…?’, to the imaginative answer (or argument). An hour or two will be all you need but it will help you get your thoughts together in a more compelling way. Again, don’t just settle for the first words out of your head. Re-write them.

5. Finally, determine the shape of your presentation

The ultimate shape your strategy needs to take will depend on many factors. I have presented a hand-drawn mindmap on a page to discuss different ideas (it led to great discussions and a new strategy), I have hand-drawn entire presentations (sometimes scanned and PowerPoint’ed, sometimes presented on paper), I have participated in a pitch where the creative director had the idea to dress up three rooms and the presentation was… us.

When your clients are large and bureaucratic, you’ll often have to present and re-present your thinking to different stakeholders. Much of the time, people will present your thinking up the ladder without you even being there. In these situations, I’m increasingly of the belief that some sort of video is the best shape for a strategy to take. Manifesto videos are slippery little things – they’re great tools to make clients feel good about their jobs but often risk becoming ads.

How do you shape up?

It’s been a while since I’ve written and I was desperate to get something out… today. I’d love to hear how you force better shapes out of your strategy. What techniques do you use? Also, I realize how theoretical this article is. If you know a brand that does good, makes good, doesn’t compete with any of my clients, excites me and would be happy for me to run them through this exercise publicly… let me know.

Photo courtesy Alessandro Pinna.

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