Strategy isn't sexy. It just means having a (good) plan

This is where I think most people fall down. They can do a list of actions, but making them coherent seems to be really difficult because it means you have to start making choices. Real life trade-offs.

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Photo by Jukan Tateisi / Unsplash

If I have spoken to you about work and the media in the past few years I will have almost certainly bored you about the importance of having a strategy and I've probably recommended that you read Good Strategy Bad Strategy.

Why am I so obsessed?

  1. Because the word has become so overused as to be meaningless in most contexts
  2. Because it is the difference between winning and losing

GSBS outlines a strategy-building approach called The Kernel. A Kernel consists of three aspects

  1. A diagnosis - what is your challenge that needs overcoming? What holds you back? The simpler the better.
  2. A guiding policy - a way to say what is and is not on the table when it comes to the next and most important step.
  3. A set of coherent actions

It's number three I want to explore more now.

A set of coherent actions

This is where I think most people fall down. They can do a list of actions, but making them coherent seems to be really difficult because it means you have to start making choices. Real life trade-offs.

There might be lots of viable actions that can be taken in pursuit of your goal, but it is quite likely they will overlap and even contradict each other, demand the same resource or confuse the teams you are asking to work on them. So you must choose.

Which actions build on the previous ones? What problem must be overcome before another? What capability will create a leveraging effect?

One of the best examples I have come across is Elon Musk's original Tesla plan

  1. Build sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car

Clearly there is a lot of detail that needs to be filled in here, but as a plan it is brilliant. It's easy for his team to understand, it's easy to communicate to the whole company. It still provides lots of opportunity for autonomy and problem solving which will interest the types of colleagues he needs to make this plan a reality.

It's coherent: create a sexy car (The Roadster) that will appeal to people with money - that's important because the low yields will make it very expensive. The cash flow generated and R&D required for the development process helps provide the foundations for stage two - making it more affordable.

Then the final step, getting costs low enough and production yields high enough to get economies of scales. (Then we can explore the network and lock-in effects of a supercharger network, but this is not a post about Tesla)

Strategy vs tactics

If a good strategy is just a simple plan, why are we so bad at it and what can we do about it?

It's worth remembering that ‘good simplicity’ belies the comprehension required to take the complex and make it simple. Also:

  1. We don't teach it or train people in it (fancy MBAs aside)
  2. A good plan is only as good as its implementation and given most companies struggle with comms, alignment is weak and therefore implementation is hard.
  3. Good strategies (for large company-level problems) normally take multiple years to be realised (because they are about trying to find and apply pressure to leverage points) and companies (especially in crisis) don't have the patience and the confidence to do so.

This third point is key. It's why we focus on building bigger buckets to bail water out of a sinking ship rather than plugging the hole where the water is coming in. Tactics are attractive because they are very measurable in the short term - you can see if they are working or not.

Sometimes they are also necessary in the absolute immediate term. But they also blind you to the costs or the debts (financial, technical and most importantly, cultural) that are being incurred while the larger problem is ignored.

In most cases the problem isn't knowing what to do - there is a lot of best practice guidance available. It's the alignment, getting everyone working from the same page - the cultural challenges in doing things differently to how they have been done before.

When Mark Thompson gave an exit interview to McKinsey last year, one part of it struck me as really being quite amazing:

We got into the habit of quite intense conversations. In 2015, we had nearly a year when the top five or six people met in a room. We’d meet Friday at noon, leave at 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m.—so six or seven hours of debate, every Friday, from early April to November. Ultimately, through lots of kicking and screaming and argument, we ended up with a genuinely shared vision that we eventually produced as a single page of bullet points, including doubling our digital revenue in five years, being a subscription-first company—advertising, yes, but subscription first—and needing to become a daily habit, being a destination.

That is 168 hours of pursuing alignment, of gaining an in-depth understanding of the NYT weaknesses and opportunities in the context of the wider media industry landscape. Of putting together a plan that had stages; that recognised what needed to be accomplished first, then next.

Five years later this has resulted in growth they dreamed of in 2015, but knew it would take time and investment to build the engine of. They had the confidence to say no to many things and not yet to some.

A simple plan

So how does the media, an industry pivoting (flailing) all over the place address this challenge? How do we move from tactics to strategy?

  1. Recognise that as well as having to be really good at the journalism (and I mean really good), we need to be good at Product (really good)
  2. Don’t chase every new platform initiative unless there is a clear first mover advantage
  3. Invest the time to build consensus among senior staff so discussions about what's next are fruitful (Netflix gets execs to debate the opposing POV so they understand it properly)
  4. Use this alignment to set a common, clear goal that can be easily explained
  5. Make a ‘simple’ plan to achieve that goal and communicate it, endlessly, every day.