Why keeping it real can be a big strategic mistake.  

The Artful Strategist has a painting lesson.

One of my most profound realisations about strategic planning came courtesy of my art teacher, Keiran who had cheerfully picked up the challenge of showing me, an enthusiastic but quite hopeless would-be water-colourist, some of the basic techniques of painting landscapes.

“Bring me some of your paintings and photographs of scenes you would like to paint,” he told me on the ‘phone when I made the appointment for my first lesson.

A week later, we were sitting hugger-muger in his studio at his paint-splattered trestle table in blue aprons drinking mugs of tea, looking at some of my untutored first attempts.

“Hmm,” he said, unpromisingly, “it seems to me you’re trying too hard to paint exactly what you see.” I nodded in agreement nervously. “But it’s resulting in bland pictures that lack drama.” I was still nodding, though now a little less enthusiastically.

“What you have to understand is that a painting is not and should not try to be, a photograph. It’s your painting and it’s a selective expression of what you’ve chosen to see. So one of the most important decisions you have to make as a painter is how to compose your picture.”

At this point, he took my chosen photographic subject, a moody coastal mountain scene, and using a 4” x 6″ mount as a framing tool showed me a series of the possible paintings that could be executed from this single photograph. Each he explained had a different point of focus, but all he showed me had the capacity to catch the viewer’s eye.

Keiran’s lesson is directly transferable to the business of strategic planning where a common error is for the team to put enormous descriptive effort into attempting to replicate the world in complex high-resolution. So often this leads to the kind of highly detailed picture that fails to engage, inspire or persuade.

On the other hand, planners will find more inspiration by experimenting with qualitatively different perspectives. This might involve emphasising one key trend or observed phenomenon in the marketplace. For example a mainstream food brand or Quick Service Restaurant might gain much from foregrounding consumer interest in street food, especially the locations where hawkers and mobile restauranteurs are concentrated such as Maltby Street in South London and Smörgasburg in Brooklyn. Alternatively, a planner’s eye could choose to zoom-in on an important target group or explore an influential belief that is shaping consumer choice. A cleverly chosen point of view can illuminate the status quo in a powerful way and also reveal what may be just beyond the horizon.

Grayson Perry’s marvellous collection of vignettes called The Vanity of Small Differences is a marvellous example to enjoy, both as a work of art and a superbly observed satirical summary audit of the 2010s.


Strategists can learn much from painters both in learning to be selective in their points of view, and by experimenting with composition with the aim of creating strategic drama.

Precept: As you summarise all the work that has gone into your situational analysis, experiment with multiple points of focus and look for the possibilities for drama that can unleash creative thinking. Do not fret about discarding the detail that is probably irrelevant to your future.

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