Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful – Rita Dove

What strategists have to learn from poets…

Outside of the classrooms where ambitious MBA students practice with matrices and models garnered from seemingly ever thicker textbooks of strategy, you’ll find in workplaces everywhere, the mayhem of business as usual, where long suffering teams find themselves suddenly involved in yet another strategic review. Here, you’ll see rolls of flip charts, decks of semi-digested analysis and extended but partial summaries of the status quo. Attracted to SWOT charts like moths to a flame, strategy groups often show great enthusiasm for the format but fail to appreciate its proper function, as the unfortunate reader’s energy is slowly but steadily punctured by a relentless attack of bullet points.

Rita Frances Dove is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, a US Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and her insight on the language of poetry is also a marvelous coaching tip on the art of strategy. Distillation is one of the essential thought processing skills required by the poet; it also the most important challenge facing a strategic planner.

If you had to define the essence of strategic thinking in just two words, you could do a lot worse than choose Diagnosis and Manifesto. This is because the planner not only has to take a wide angled view of the world, absorb its stimulus and abstract the key issues facing our ‘brand’, but also propose a manifesto that persuades and mobilises. Like a poet, the strategist must focus on both the quality and quantity of the language he employs. Twitter, the popular social media micro-blogging site provide us with a helpful framework that limits posts to 140 characters. Acting like a beautiful constraint, the Tweet is now the perfect thought processor for crafting strategic intent.

The second half of Professor Dove’s quotation provokes us to consider the tremendous value of language leveraged to inspire and bring strategy to action. The well-armoured poet will deploy a stock of rhetorical devices and imagery, the music of rhythm and the force of repetition, not to mention the shocking disrespect for the rules of grammar.

Consider this famous extract from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which power language has been brilliantly used to communicate strategic intent. It features one of the great challenger brands of literature, The Devil.

In Book One of Paradise Lost, Satan and his cohort of angels have been cast down and banished from heaven and morale is understandably low. At some sort of Miltonic imagined away-day, the fallen angels each get to present their thoughts and analysis, but it is this strategically distilled and powerful speech of Satan’s that carries the day:

The mind is its own place, and in it
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.’

Precept: For poets and strategists, power comes from distillation in content and in delivery, in diagnosis and manifesto

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