‘Time for some new strategic clichés?’

The Artful Strategist goes to the movies.

Those like me who are addicted to combing through the sound-bite flotsam and jetsam of the famous, hold a special place for Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood producer who seems to have come straight from Central Casting.

So prolific was his cannonade of quips, epigrams and one-liners that compilers had to invent a term to describe them: they became Goldwynisms. They might have been called something else, but the young Warsaw run-a-way had already displayed instinctive marketing flair by changing his name from Szmuel Gelbfisz. In show business, he knew branding mattered.

Contracts mattered too, and today many of the most famous Goldwynisms shine a spotlight on the legal rough and tumble of the early years of the movie business as these examples show:

“Include me – out.’’

“I’ll give you a definite maybe.”

Of course, there were many who just assumed that Sam was a poorly educated immigrant with a limited understanding of language and the rules of grammar. But those who gave him the label Mister Malaprop massively underestimated his intelligence, business judgement and natural flair for a particular kind of rhetorical device, the oxymoron.

An oxymoron is a phrase constructed to produce a seemingly self-contradictory effect like Juliet explaining to Romeo that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’ Tricky both to formulate and to deliver, an oxymoron can be challenging, especially when it’s being improvised on the hoof. But then Sam Goldwyn was a master of oxymora:

“Our comedies are not to be laughed at.”

 

“We’re overpaying him, but he’s worth it.”

 

“I read part of it all the way through.”

Oxymoron comes from the attractively ugly combination of two words from Ancient Greek: oxys (sharp) and moros (dull); and so suggesting a somewhat curious state of sharp foolishness, the word itself is fascinatingly paradoxical.

But sharp foolishness is probably the perfect mind-set for a strategist when embarking upon the fundamental reappraisal of a business, brand or institution. Cutely naïve questioning is a very good technique for uncovering compelling truths. Fresh eyes can cure marketing myopia.

Goldwynisms can also be deployed as effective and inspiring challenges. Reading some dialogue in what he thought was a poor script, Sam said, “Let’s have some new clichés”.

As a serial entrepreneur, Goldwyn knew well the audience pleasing power of safe–adventure in a product that offered the punter simultaneously something mainstream, commonplace and easily understood but yet was fresh and original in its form and impact. In his call for some new clichés, Goldwyn is goading us to delete the tired old stuff and inspiring us to find the al dente twist on the familiar. He knew this was the secret of great Box Office, and the best way of making big stars even bigger.

Precept: As an alternative to intelligently predictable standard methods, try a little Goldwyn sharp foolishness to pep up your planning and get yourself out and about discovering the freshest from the market new season clichés.

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.

http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/touring/grayson-perry-the-vanity-of-small-differences

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.

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

To have a bloody good time filling the gap between being born and dying – Felix Dennis

It is a personal sadness that I never did get to have a glass of wine with Felix Dennis or even listen to him reading his poetry, because he died in June, 2014.

It was not that I was personally acquainted with Felix you understand, even if he did write to me surprisingly often to offer me the opportunity of subscribing or re-subscribing to one of the many magazines from which he made his fortune. But Felix was a fantastic example of an Artful Strategist who combined a left brain highly disciplined approach to making money with a restless right brain capacity for spotting new opportunity and bringing colour and a ribald sense of humour to the grey world of publishing.

Whilst he is remembered for being one of the Oz Three, and the least intelligent one according to the trial judge, his greatest gift was an instinctual publishing nous that came from spotting emerging consumer enthusiasms like martial arts, home computers, lads-mags or highly distilled digests of weekly news.

Felix was not the typical MBA storm-trooper, but he knew how to draft a good mission statement, and what’s more, having spent £100m on drugs and women, he was even better at fulfilling one.

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others – Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift’s principal claim to fame is as the author of Gulliver’s Travels. But in coining the subject of this post, the Augustan satirist also succeeded in writing one of the most oft quoted maxims on leadership.

You will find the original text in Thoughts on Various Subjects, his equivalent of a bulging Moleskin notebook of bon mots and banter next to this comment on marriage:

Matrimony hath many children – Repentance, Discord, Poverty, Jealousy, Sickness, Spleen, Loathing etc

The book contains many spikes of observational comedy like this, but Swift living in highly volatile times, had chosen the wrong side and now had plenty of time on his hands to aphorize at length in his Irish vicarage.

Perhaps all satirists have a well-developed eye for spotting hidden truths that are invisible to others. A capacity for subversive perception can provide just the sudden intellectual breakthrough needed to power something new, significant and even revolutionary.

I had a personal lesson on this phenomenon thanks to the experiences of another writer. As a student on a Creative Writing MA, I was lucky enough to have Sarah Dunant as one of my tutors. In one of her guest lectures, she told the class how she came to swop the world of formulaic thrillers for the highly acclaimed series of novels about the Italian Renaissance. Finding herself in Florence after a major life event, and with a tremendous passion for history, Sarah began to gorge on all available aspects of the Medici Renaissance. In all her reading, however, she was struck by how little women seemed to feature in the story. This led her to pose the strategically pivotal question: Did women actually have a Renaissance? The Birth of Venus and a number of other superbly researched novels featuring nuns, courtesans and heiresses suggests the answer and provides a bold new narrative.

Finding new angles and perspectives on old questions has always been a vital source of generating energy and hypotheses to create something new, and recently techniques like reframing have become fashionable as methods to illuminate positive new directions hidden by the clutter of the status quo.

Reframing involves taking the accepted facts as seen, but attempts to discover new insights and meanings by challenging all conceptual or emotional settings, assumptions and viewpoints. Reframing the problem as defined can be a powerful way of seeing patterns in data we’ve missed, or take us to viewing points where something hidden and yet always present in the landscape can become clearer.

Classic left brain strategists find reframing difficult as there are no easy guarantied procedures that will illuminate the strategic equivalent of elven moon letters. To use the tool successfully, you need to be able to stand back from the trenches of data analysis and be comfortable in taking some non-standard excursions, if you are to stand any chance of making a significant perceptual breakthrough.

Precept
Too much data analysis will blind as much as it can guide decisions. If you want a compelling vision, step away the Big Data Front for a while. Enjoy exploring the boundaries of the map. Feel comfortable turning it through 90 degrees. Check all assumptions very, very carefully and then watch out for flying exclamation marks.

A Masterclass in Strategy – Sir Lawrence Freedman at The Oxford Literary Festival

Strategy, as all good bluffers know, is about maximizing relative advantage, which is why deception often plays an important role in its implementation. Books on business strategy are surprisingly dense and inordinately long but usually possess in their kernel one or two simple ideas. Michael Porter who has enjoyed a stellar career and even more stellar consulting day-rate produced the famous trilogy on competing that outweighs The Lord of the Rings and has probably as many laughs. Sir Lawrence Freedman’s new book Strategy A History enters the lists at a whacking 751 pages. For those of us who have neither the strength nor the motivation to read this knight’s tale, there is good news. There will be a literary festival somewhere near you this summer where you will be able to catch the lecture and buy the book. I was one of the lucky ones properly equipped with sturdy back pack who saw him in action last week at Christ Church at the Oxford Literary Festival.

He soon warmed the audience up with a quote from Mike Tyson, ‘Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth’ and went on to argue what many of us rebels have long thought: that strategy is always more interesting from the perspective of the under-dog. Being in a strong or leading position can be notoriously difficult to maintain, especially when such players believe that they can control events, but such intentions he argued are likely to be frustrated. He was gently satirical on the planning performance of big firms in the 1990’s and their tendency to follow fads and fashions. I loved his Sun Tzu game where you make up a gnomic precept in the style of Call My Bluff.

For Sir Lawrence, strategy is less about getting you to a plan, especially if it’s an unrealistic grand dessein but rather a process for getting you to the next step of the journey. The real secret of creating power he argues lies in partnership and coalition. In 1940 Churchill may not have known how to win the war, but he knew how not to lose it, and that was getting the Americans on board.

Plans are prone to misadventure and rather than thinking about strategy as a three act play, we are advised to think of it more like a soap opera, where the only certainty is uncertainty and the likelihood is complete mayhem. You do not need to be a strategic genius to see how the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 could be just a little like the summer of 1914. Thank you for the warning, Sir Lawrence.

Strategy A History
Lawrence Freedman
Oxford, 2013

Paul Christopher Walton

Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal – Igor Stravinsky

Now it has to be said this quotation is not without a degree of controversy. Igor Stravinsky may have said it, but Pablo Picasso, TS Eliot and Steve Jobs certainly said something like it, and they all probably got it from WH Davenport Adams who in the late nineteenth century had a made a special study of Alfred Tennyson’s poetry and its relationship with the works of other writers.

But ignoring for the moment the irony about how this aphorism about plagiarism came about, the basic idea implicit in it is the contrast between ‘borrowing’ as slavish imitation that actually diminishes both the original and the imitator, and ‘stealing’ which should result in the significant enhancement of the original artist’s work. To cite a famous example: are the opening bars of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord a straight lift of The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine? Or did George magnificently enhance and build upon a riff he’d heard, consciously or unconsciously?

In business, where real competitive advantage is hard to find and even harder to maintain, imitation often results in mindless superficiality (Just why do sales people in Dixons wear expensive headphones?) or brutal price-based market share smash-and-grab. Consider how Samsung built its leading position in electronics by fast-following Sony, consistently offering more features for less money. Today a very different Samsung is squaring up to Apple and this time it’s about intellectual property as much as price.

Steve Jobs of course has interesting form on the question of property. Here’s what he said a few years ago on PBS in The Triumph of the Nerds:

Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done …and then to try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean, Picasso had a saying…he said good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

What Steve Jobs did with the iPod is a great example. So much of what became the Apple iPod system already existed, but what Jobs did was to bring it all together, add fantastic consumer understanding and superb design to take the nerdy old MP3player into the global mainstream.

Unfortunately, there are those with less passion for genuine innovation than Steve Jobs who have been quick to adopt the neo-Jobsian rallying cry of ‘Steal with pride!’ to justify an epidemic of tweaking and copying. But unless your sole raison d’être is price, like some firm flogging knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, the real innovation challenge will be to enhance and improve what you see around you and to combine it in a way that reflects your own purpose and unique brand voice.

Precept:

Look at your innovation pipeline. Are you stealing with pride or just cashing in? Do have a vision that enhances what is unique about your offer to the world and yet is open to the best of what others are doing? What is your innovation added value?