11 July 2023
‘Strategy is the very human act of imagination’ /
The value of strategy has become obscured by myth, misinformation and process, argues Martin Weigel, chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO. The discipline is in urgent need of reformation.
The market for (real) strategy vastly outstrips the supply of it, and the woods really are burning – they’re not just words that Nils Leonard likes to quote at us.
This isn’t clickbait rhetoric. Reporting on its 2023 Annual Global CEO Survey, PWC noted that nearly forty per cent of CEOs think their company will no longer be economically viable a decade from now, if it continues on its current path. The pattern is consistent across a range of economic sectors, including technology (41%), telecommunications (46%), healthcare (42%) and manufacturing (43%).
If forty per cent (FORTY!!) of CEOs don’t think their organisation will exist in ten years’ time, then strategy is in urgent need of a reformation. Within our tiny corner of it in adland, its value has become obscured by myth, misinformation, self-destructive humility (‘inspire creatives’ etc.), and self-inflicted bullshit (‘voice of the consumer’ etc.). Its aspirations, horizons and standards suffer from worshipping the wrong heroes, and fawning over self-appointed experts and gurus, while the tools we’ve created to articulate, sell, justify, package, and rationalise its outputs have become cognitive straightjackets that condemn us to inch forwards. Our ambition and rate of progress is constipated.
If we’re going to talk about ‘the future of strategy’ then we are going to have to talk about how relegating strategy to the supply of disposable ‘insights’ and ‘propositions’ for other people’s creative processes is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of strategy. Worse, it fails to extract its real, true value. The fact is that strategy does not limit itself to what is known today, and to what is believed to be feasible today, for the simple reason that limiting ourselves to what is visible, known and feasible commits us to solving small issues and taking small steps. We should recall the forty per cent of CEOs who can’t see a future beyond the ten-year horizon.
It rarely gets a mention in the discipline’s own somewhat dispiriting rhetoric but strategy is about creating change and transformation. As the military historian Professor Lawrence Freedman wrote and I never get tired of quoting, ‘all strategy is revolution. The rest is just tactics’. And it’s fair to say that the lesson of history is that you don't usually start a revolution by incrementally optimising the present. You start with the better future you want.
The inconvenient truth for those who believe that strategy’s primary working method and tool is research is that there is no data about the future. By its very nature all data is from the past. Seductive though that subjectivity-and-human-free proposition might be for some, we cannot simply analyse our way to a desired future. The only way we can get our hands on and engage with the future is to imagine it. So before it is anything else, strategy is the very human act of imagination. ‘Seeing’ what does not yet exist. Seeing things as they could be. As we would want them to be.
This is not about denying or ignoring reality and its webs of causality (that’s the job of fantasy and people who believe in unicorns) – it’s about getting maximum grip on reality. Imagination is about refusing to be held hostage by the inheritance of the past or by what is assumed to be fixed and generally agreed upon.
In other words, despite the oversupply of tips, hacks, templates, tools and processes that suggest otherwise, strategy doesn’t work forwards from the present in a linear step-by-step manner. And to argue otherwise is nothing more than a charter for incrementalism and caution. Again, we should bring to mind the forty percent (FORTY!!) of CEOs who can’t see a future beyond the ten-year horizon.
Instead, the task of strategy is to race into a better, more exciting, more valuable, more desired imagined future – and then to turn around and work back to the present to make it real. Imagination, in other words, is for the impatient. For those who want to create accelerated realities rather than just slipstream behind somebody else’s. As Roger Martin (a hard-nosed strategic advisor to CEOs, not some self-indulgent ad-luvvie) has argued, strategy conceived as being led by imagination will always outflank plodding analysis. Similarly, the creator of Succession, Jesse Armstrong, has spoken of his writers’ room approach: ‘The writers’ room is an open forum where anything mad or weird or ridiculous that aggressively shakes up the show can be suggested and considered. Our approach is the most exciting idea wins and we work back from there.’
It's going to disappoint (better yet, enrage) the ‘X is dead and everything is different’ brigade, but while tactics change and evolve, the fundamental nature of strategy is and always will be utterly unchanging. But if strategy and those it serves want to actually have a future at all (recall once more the forty per cent of CEOs who can’t see a future beyond the ten-year horizon) then we could do a lot worse than remind ourselves of and liberate its true nature. Imagination.
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Most Contagious London lineup announced /
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