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APG Big Thinking On Strategy: a few thoughts

I spent a great afternoon at the annual APG Big Thinking fest this week musing on the state of strategy.

Thought I might add a mere mortal perspective on the big thinking shared on the day.

But first a quick recap on my previous strategy meanderings...

My ode to Walt in Breaking Bad: vital lessons in strategic planning picks up on many of the themes talked about this week. Particularly the point about Product Managers being the real strategy rock stars. Let's face it Walt was THE killer product manager...

I'm also a history nerd with a soft spot for the broad strokes of Grand Strategy and how it plays out on the world stage and in war. I pondered 10 Musings on Strategy on what it is in the 21st century.

Strategy is such a seductive topic.

As someone who spends his day thinking 'he does strategy' it can be both a love in and a tortured inquest. That's why the APG talks were so good - the speakers kind of called half time on strategy and each speaker gave their own pep talk on what the next play should be. Allowing agonised planners everywhere a chance to take stock and chew on some big perspectives.

Here are my brief takeouts from the day:

Theme # 1: Strategy as antidote

Adam Morgan's talk about the emerging breed of 'unreasonable consumers' was brilliant. It sums up exactly why you need strategy today. Why conventional approaches are coming unhinged with the challenge of coping with the connected and unreasonable consumer. Strategy in this sense is about how to romance the right antidote.

Theme # 2: Strategy as formula

I loved the provocation by Malcolm White that strategy can be distilled to a formula. The spirit of reductivist thinking was presented with a real acid tone. Yet, as we know the problem with this approach is that if everything can be reduced to a calculation then we might as well pack up and go home. Strategy as formula is helpful in mapping the forest, but not so good at figuring which path to plough.

Theme # 3: Strategy as usability

The assertion that 'usability trumps persuasion' by Russell Davies (and Ben Malbon in a way) struck probably the biggest chord of the day. That a great product and brilliant user experience is enough. Behold strategy as delivery! Of course we all buy this - who doesn't? But what about the majority of brands flogging parity products who NEED to persuade and gain attention. Isn't the challenge for strategy to extract more than what you put in?

Theme # 4: Strategy as culture

As we hurtle to a global culture the role a brand plays in peoples lives will increasingly need to be more relevant. The idea that a local cultural context can act as a force multiplier is not new, but will certainly get more creative as consumers welcome more variation. Brands participating in culture as a means to shape culture is the biggest brand ambition of all.

For me strategy is ultimately about:

1. Imagining the possible. It is envisioning a future state that hasn't been created yet. And collaborating with parties who share that vision.

2. Making directional choices. It is about working your options and making decisions at speed. It is about strategy as sacrifice as much as it is about making scrappy decisions.

3. Adapting to the journey. It is about having the right vocabulary and tactics for mastering the moment. It is about being fluent in the situation and rolling with it.

It is not enough to have a strategy in today's world.

It is how fast you can journey.

As Sir Lawrence Freedman said in his keynote you will probably never end up at your desired future state anyway. For most companies survival with an acceptable profit is pretty much the main goal for any strategy.

What matters is how you muddle through.

Strategic success is about how well you travel.

So find your spunkiest Air Max and don't look back...

David McNamara

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