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The Soft Skills That Work Hard

In this post reflecting on what he’s learned from running APG’s Nailing Your Strategy course, James Caig considers the importance of embracing all that we are in the fight to develop distinctive strategies for our clients.

There’s a saying I first heard when working on the Teacher Recruitment campaign years ago: there’s no learning like teaching.

You’d hear it from current teachers when they talked about the benefits of the job. How inspiring it was. How privileged they felt to be exposed to the perspectives of so many young people. You can’t stand in front of kids every day, each carrying their own unique bundle of ideas and dreams and fears, and not learn something about the world. About people. About yourself.

After two years of running the Nailing Your Strategy course for the APG, I have to say I agree.

A process of discovery

I already knew planners are the best kind of company. Smart, articulate, expectant, curious, questioning. And I might have guessed that planners looking to improve themselves - those showing the discernment to sign up to an APG course - would bring all those qualities and more to their own learning and development. But it has made facilitating their learning a constant process of discovery for me.

Without the delegates, I couldn’t gauge what works and what doesn’t. I wouldn’t learn about the applicability of the techniques we use. I wouldn’t guess at the quality of thinking that comes back from the groups in such a short time. But what’s thrilled me the most is to discover a little more each time about what, deep down, this course is really about. After six outings and around 75 different strategists, I’m finally starting to appreciate what’s been there all along, thanks to the way delegates engage with it.

Ironically, this dynamic crops up in module 3, when we talk about ideas. I quote, as every strategy course should at some point, Jim Carroll, who champions the ability to “distil the core idea behind what someone is telling you.” It’s a skill that allows great planners to provide a kind of ‘authorial voice’ during the strategic and creative process, when we help a team make sense of fluid inputs and advantageous digressions. It’s needed, he says, because “often the creator doesn’t even have that clarity. We often don’t know the architecture of our own idea until someone points it out to us.” I now realise how true that is.

This is not to say that I didn’t have a clear intention with the course. In devising Nailing Your Strategy, two distinct thoughts I’d been having came together. The first was the contrast that working in smaller, independent agencies offered to ten years in large, networked businesses. What you can learn by osmosis in the latter is much harder to come by in the former. And while there are plenty of planning frameworks out there to try, I found less available on how to use them - in effect, how to think well.

A shortcut to superpowers

The other thought buzzing around my brain was an aphorism that wouldn’t let go: ‘the soft skills that work hard’. The EQ to go with the IQ, if you will. As someone who has jumped around different disciplines and led teams with different levels of experience, I’ve learned the importance of ‘reading’ situations that are unfamiliar or uncertain. I’ve worked with both media and creative agencies, and with organisations that don’t come anywhere near either; mostly as a planner, but also as a trainer or a facilitator. As a result I have collected a repertoire of tools and strategies that work in different situations. I’ve also learned that the skills that make the difference often transcend discipline. In our industry, though, these are tricks more likely to be learned than taught.

When Heath Ledger died, Christopher Nolan, who’d directed him in The Dark Knight, described him as someone who’s charisma was “as natural and invisible as gravity.” During my early years in agencies, that’s how I felt about the CSOs and other great planners in whose presence I learned my trade. It seemed they’d been born or bestowed with unattainable superpowers. Like they were a breed apart. But over time I realised those powers can be acquired. You could watch these leaders, learn from them. Their personal impact was often down to thinking well and transmitting that thinking effectively to others. It gets easier to trust your instinct the more experience you have - there are more techniques and tools to lean on. I felt there was room for a course that focused on those inflection points when teams look to planners for that kind of impact. Alongside the rigour and analytical skills, could we train for flexibility, judgement, imagination, persuasion? Could we provide tools that enable different modes of thinking, maybe even help people access the superpowers that experience provides?

Yes, we could. And so, Nailing Your Strategy was born.

Plurality as standard

Or rather, it wasn’t. At least, not to begin with, as we first launched the course as Savvy Strategy Skills. The title reflected the additive nature of what we covered. It suggested shortcuts, hustle, secret knowledge. The modules zoom in on moments when procrastination can strike, or when you really need to make your work count with others. The first two modules focus on getting started on a project and how to structure and plan a workshop. Session 3 is about ‘thinking in ideas’. Session 4 is about writing persuasive presentations.

But over time we realised ‘savvy’ wasn’t quite right. If anything, these skills came to seem intrinsic to planning. Planners move at such a pace, springing from one scenario to another in a moment, answering never-before-asked questions and leading where others follow. Those ‘soft skills’ are worked harder than ever, so it felt right to have a name to reflect that. Nailing Your Strategy, well, nailed it. After all, what’s harder than a nail?

But there are three words in the title, and it’s the ‘Your’ that best captures the lesson I’ve taken most to heart. Like the teacher who knows their class consists of thirty individual minds, it’s hard to run this course without putting the diverse experience of delegates at its centre. Right from the start the cohort has reflected the plurality of the APG membership. If you want a sign of the spread of planning and strategy out from ad agencies to other spheres, the delegate list of each outing for this course is a good place to start: clients, junior planners at big agencies, lone wolves, experienced consultants, insight specialists, creatives, and of course strategists who work in all manner of disciplines.

Reflecting on all this begged the question, if this diversity (of this sort at least) is now standard, what is it we have in common? And how should we teach strategy when everyone starts from such different places?

Our valuable hinterlands

I don’t believe the answer is to impose universal frameworks. Nor is it about teaching everyone to think the same way. That way lies homogeneity, which only serves to reinforce the challenge faced by the industry as well as by practitioners. The answers we need aren’t at the back of the book - we’re going to have to invent them. That means strategies that stand out, not fit to some universal standard.

The way I see it, advertising and communications are inherently competitive. Our work should yield a competitive advantage. So the aim is distinctiveness. And distinctiveness comes from us.

Every planner has a cognitive hinterland - a unique set of reference points they draw on when engaged in strategic thinking. It’s the place our ideas come from. It’s the lens through which we perceive the opportunities and challenges encoded into any brief. It shapes our ability to connect with collaborators and clients. This hinterland is our greatest asset - because those answers waiting to be invented rely on our imaginative skills - and it’s also our greatest liability, because we are governed by bias we’re not always aware of. We are more than processing machines, but our mind is also a kind of algorithm, one that shapes and is shaped by our own thoughts and actions. Only if we understand it can we harness it well, and mitigate its limitations.

Here, then, is the idea that was there all along in Nailing Your Strategy, but was revealed by working with such a diverse range of smart people. The opportunity each of us has is to bring our full selves to the work - it might be the best way we have of discovering more distinctive strategies for our clients. But with that comes a responsibility - to know what it is we’re bringing, lest we are subject to constraints we don’t see.

In practice, this first means acknowledging our assumptions. The very first thing we ask delegates to do is to consider a client brief using three personal questions. What excites you about the brief? What scares or concerns you about it? What other briefs or problems does it remind you of? This is because energy flows where attention goes, and the first step for critical thinking is to be aware of your attention. Our excitement about an aspect of the brief might lead us to overstate its importance. Equally, we might miss a critical element because it’s in our blind spot. Answering these questions individually helps surface our biases. Answering them collectively reveals to the group the extent to which there are multiple answers to any question. Strategy is an ongoing dialogue between constraints and possibility, and it starts within us.

Engineered epiphanies

But we also need to exercise the mind. In module 3 we use an idea generation technique - what you might, if you were being flash, call ‘combinatorial creativity’. It’s play as a form of thinking. That’s what our minds like to do and it’s what we need them to do when we’re engaged in the strategy process, to see where our thinking could take us. So we practise working with random input - an arbitrary creative constraint. I give teams the name of a celebrity, and they use that person’s characteristics as prompts to address a brand challenge, and as a prompt for the imagination - in colliding together two completely separate components, we’re forced to make a lateral leap. I want to show we can, when we want to, engineer our own epiphanies. If this process goes well, you find something juicy. At the very least, you find something worthy of further investigation.

On the most recent outing of the course I was astounded at what the teams generated using this technique. If you were to set it against the hours we spend on reasoning, analysis and distillation during any real-world project, it would seem a very good return for twenty minutes’ work. The experience helped crystallise things for me. While idea generation techniques may be straightforward, that doesn’t mean they’re not sophisticated, because they harness the hinterland we’re able to bring to it. To shoot from the hip as well as the course delegates did, those hips must be attached to engaged minds. It’s why in module 3 we talk about the work required to keep our reference points fresh and interesting, and put that alongside exercises that help harness those reference points in valuable, efficient ways.

That all takes work, just not the type of work that’s billable against allocated hours. Creativity requires us to be on ‘receive mode’ almost all the time, figuratively and literally scrapbooking the world for future material. But this is how we get to the most creative work. Tom Roach wrote a lovely piece recently on judging the APG Creative Strategy Awards, reminds us that strategy is about ideas, and quite often an act of imagination. This is what makes the engineered epiphanies generated by randomised exercises useful. As Rory Sutherland made clear in Alchemy, iIllogic and counter-intuitiveness are as important to problem-solving and commercial creativity as logic and reasoning, if not more so. “There are far more good ideas out there that you can post-rationalise than you can pre-rationalise,” he says. Lucky accidents and trivial solutions are the great untapped opportunity. You're just playing the percentages. Which means randomness is entirely rational.

If you’re stuck, it’s perfectly possible that a little dose of illogic could be just the thing to make sense of it all.

Flexible but decisive

When it comes down to it, the Nailing Your Strategy course is about being flexible but decisive in the many different moments we face. Knowing when to open up, when to drill down. Knowing how to let the perspectives of others in, and ways to consolidate your own. The openness needed to build an idea out, the conviction to lock it in. The triumph of the tiny detail, the epiphany within the big picture. And, underpinning all that, given the unique reference points and bias and imaginations we each carry around with us, knowing when to consciously project our passions, skills and knowledge onto a problem, and when to get out of our own way.

It’s the same when running the course. It was written to be practical and useful, the focus on what delegates need, not what I happen to find philosophically interesting. These ideas must have always been there - ‘unknown but not unperceived’, as William Blake might have said - but as they’ve emerged they have helped me see the course in a wider context, if only for myself. People who teach properly will probably recognise this. After all, the more participative the method, the more the student retains. Reading is good, demonstrations and discussions better, putting things into practice even more so. Best of all is teaching others, because the student thinks about it for themselves.

Which is, of course, what I’ve been doing. As a result I understand the value of the course better. I always hoped it was worthy of the APG membership, that what I thought was interesting or clever enough. But after two years, I believe the secret to being a good strategist is to embrace all that you know, all that you are. And now I know, ironically, that the course isn’t about me at all, but about helping every delegate get better at being themselves.

Book your space on this course here


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