I realized (while writing the prior article, Could Strategy Be as Simple as This?) that the factor of “advantage” was the most interesting of the three strategy components (objective and scope being the other two). Advantage refers to position or potential versus another.
What makes advantage interesting as a factor of strategy? First, my experience is that many strategists seldom think about advantage. Too often, strategists assume that their job is done when they establish goals and objectives. However, a competitive reaction will always occur. Second, the idea of competitive rivalry creates the tension that makes for a good story; and stories are enormously powerful leadership tools. Third, creative and innovative ideas gain much of their power and impact simply because they address unrecognized issues. They are pleasant surprises.
This leads to a powerful question that provokes strategic thinking: Who do you want as a future competitor? As you answer the question, you imagine the evolution of your strengths and weaknesses versus a new set of competitors.
As an example of thinking about future competitors, I was part of a business development team that was leading our venture into an entirely new market, where we would no longer be competing against “mom and pop” enterprises, but would be facing well-funded and professionally-managed corporations. We constantly reminded ourselves that we would need processes and intellectual assets to be able to prevail against them – even though the competitive face-off was at least a year away.
An Aside: Why is being interesting so interesting?
The key word in this stream of thought is interesting. Strategic thinkers know that people will want to engage with someone whose ideas are eye-opening in some way. The further exploration of those ideas provides camaraderie, mental stimulation, and open up the opportunity for economic benefit.
Here is an interesting point that I learned from the management guru, Tom Peters: If you want to innovate, look to your most interesting customers. Interesting customers are typically NOT your biggest customers. Your interesting customers are trying to solve novel problems. As Eric Von Hipple – the guru of lead user research – suggests, develop and provide tool kits and search out those users who invent solutions to problems.
How to make scope interesting
The scope of strategy to determine what is “in” and “out” of consideration. I think the interesting question is where the organization chooses not to venture. Note what Chris Peters of Microsoft (Microsoft Secrets, Page 210) has to say about excluding items from the scope:
“There can be good and bad vision statements. A good statement tells you what’s not in the product; a bad vision statement implies everything is in the product. In order to give you guidance on what’s in and out, you have to kind of explain what the thing isn’t. And too often marketing will decide that it’s best if everything’s in… The hard part is figuring out what not to do. We cut two-thirds of the features we want to do in every release off the list. If we could actually write down everything we wanted to do, it would be a fifteen-hundred-page document. So the vision statement helps you in the chopping mechanism, not in the creation mechanism.”
How to create an interesting objective
An interesting objective is one that is counterintuitive. It might possibly be of the type where one “loses the battle in order to win the war.”
Here is an example of a counterintuitive action. In the 1940s, a group of 17 forest fire fighters were dropped into Mann Gulch in Idaho to battle a blaze. The blaze unexpectedly reversed course on the group and started running up the mountain towards them. The leader of the group -Wagner Dodge – recognized that they could not outrun the blaze, so he built a small escape fire to consume nearby fuel (fuel, heat, and oxygen being three necessary ingredients in fire), resulting in a protective zone. This objective was not standard fire-fighting procedure. He survived, but those who tried to outrun the fire perished. (Gary Klien covers this incident in his book Seeing What Others Don’t. He calls this process of insight development creative desperation.)
Strategic Thinkers are Curious
The question about “interestingness” is one that a curious person would ask. Because they are curious, strategic thinkers add value to the strategic planning process. Instead of approaching strategy with a checklist mentality of completing each prescribed step and moving on to the next one, they stay alert for opportunities.
Do you agree that curiosity is an important characteristic of the strategic thinker?
- Strategic Thinking: Seven Questions for Your New Year’s Resolution (leadingstrategicinitiatives.com)