How to be a better strategist – part 2 (what other strategists do)

Posted on 28/06/2018


At the moment I’m deep into how people practice strategy.

My last post (How to be better at strategy – strategy for non strategists) suggested a few habits and ways of thinking that can help you evaluate a situation, form a strategy and prioritize. Now I’m making a start on what strategists do that makes them good at strategy. For example, what skills do people need to keep sharp to make them better at what they do? What (good) habits do they establish which gives them more smarts / a reserve of ideas / greater cerebral agility?

Here are some thoughts of my own, but I’d love to hear yours below:

1. Feed your curiosity

The fundamental trait of strategist and planners I know (and work with) is curiosity. Curiosity about things, people, and what causes them to be the way they are. You can’t get on without the desire to ask questions and formulate answers. So finding things out and learning comes top of my list of behaviours planners /strategists need to develop.

How and where people do this people learn differs. Heather Lefevre’s biannual survey of strategists shows the diversity (but also convergence) of where people go to for information.

Faris Yakob shows something similar with his idea of a balanced media diet:

Ideas and opinions are abundant in the planning community. Whether it’s the Exponential View, or Genius Steals there’s a shed-load of places to binge on information – just go looking.

2. Learn from what works (and what doesn’t)

Most industries celebrate their achievements, none more so than the marketing industry. But there’s a lot you can learn from industry awards (not least, how to present and sell your work). I’m especially interested in effectiveness awards: the Cannes Lions Effectiveness Awards, the Effies and the IPA Effectiveness awards – because they’re doing what we all should which is use creativity to improve business performance.

That said, we’re very bad at looking at and learning from failure. This brilliant article makes the point for me: we’re succumbing to survivor-ship bias if we only learn from work that wins awards. Hoping we will see a #fuckups awards ceremony appear some time soon…

3. Digest information and practice telling a simple story

Reading and watching are good. But to really internalize something and form an opinion about it, you have to process it. For me, that’s in the form of writing. For others, it might be drawing/ visualising a concept; others might talk through it. Whatever works for you, but keep at it. Do it every week, if not every day.

4. Stay observant to change

I’ve developed a weird habit of looking back through my social media feeds, looking for patterns in what I say, share and read. It started as workshop preparation work for a colleague (the brilliant Leigh Householder). Here’s how it works:

  1. Reflect on what you’ve been reading, saying, liking and consuming over the past 6 months:
    1. How has this changed?
    2. What patterns can you see?
    3. What new behaviours are you noticing?
  2. Each of these is a ‘clue’; many clues layer up to form a trend:
    1. What things do these clues have in common?
    2. What do they mean about how we now communicate / live / work?
    3. And what might these mean for the near future?

I try to look back every 6 months or so (along with reading a lot of different “trends” reports) to get a feel for how people, communication and technology might be changing. It’s not about predicting the future; it’s to better understand the present so we can decide how we might shape the future.

5. Find your Weird

While I’m a bit interested in where people look for ideas (the most popular sources are pretty clear from Heather’s slides), I’m more interested in where they find their Weird: alternative approaches, and niche thinking. If we all followed the same information diet, and consumed the same ‘industry think’, our own ideas would be a lot less colourful. Instead, I believe it’s essential we look to different walks of life, schools of thought and sub-cultures to find something unusual. Of course, you need to understand what your peers think, but not so much that you arrive at identical conclusions every time. You want something weird and alternative in there too. Hence why I’m a fan of the writers of Culture Digitally and Real Life.

Ideas, please!

I’d love to know what other people think and do. Which habits make you a better strategist?