Strategic breakthroughs and the art of beating time

The Artful Strategist has a lesson from the Maestro.

In June 2011, after thirty years of monthly profit and loss, I left the boardroom for the final time and facing a long year in the cold storage of a non-compete, decided to go back to college. It was time to learn how to write.

Not you understand that I had spent the previous thirty years of my career in branding being completely incapable of wielding a pen, but apart from the occasional short story and the random urge to add to the EU poetry mountain, I hadn’t yet written anything over two thousand words. So I decided to find out if I could write long – long, in a year of learning to write dangerously.

They say that we all have a novel inside of us, and I decided it was time to discover where mine was located and whether it could be extracted without too much pain to me or my nearest and dearest.

So off I went, back to University for a whacky year in the utterly misnamed faculty of creative writing. Here I met a fascinating gallery of characters that included smug dysfunctional poets, sociopathic novelists and semi-sozzled journalists, but at least my fellow students turned out to be always generous, often clever and sometimes very, very funny.

This was to be the year of contending with the Big Deadline. Not the usual daily deadline of which I was the past-master, that is winging-it in the world of advertising, but squaring up to the mother of all big, fat hairy monsters of a deadline that was terrifying both quantitatively (the word-count) but also qualitatively (spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout).

To make matters worse, I was also required to submit a critical commentary with my novella that was the equivalent of making public a journey into the disturbing privacy of the authorial mind. James, my tutor, told me he had every confidence in my ability to deal with this challenge, but I remained anxiously unconvinced.

My first, and so far unfinished novel, if you’ll forgive the Schubertian parallel, is called Historyland and it is a dark comedy set in a distant and dystopian future. As a structuralist par excellence, I had prepared a detailed synopsis and plot outline that I enjoyed reviewing and editing with pride and affection. To my opinion, it had an engaging protagonist, great set pieces, a wonderful narrative arc, in fact everything, apart from the 30,000 words I now needed to write.

I drew up a week-by-week action plan – over the summer I would need to write a Conrad a day. A Conrad is the standard unit of creative writing inspired by Joseph Conrad that consists of a daily target of 750 words. It was, however, depressing to learn from visiting writers whose job it was to inspire us that these 750 have to be a good 750 words. Some of the biggest names in the business went on to depress me even more by telling us that they considered it was a good day if they were able to add a net 250 words to their magnum opus. All good writers we were told must learn to love the Delete Key.

My plan had also not taken into account the summer heat. The sun followed me back from the South of France to a South-facing Oxfordshire writing room that made long distance writing difficult. There were also a gazillion reasons I became adept at finding to procrastinate. Before long, I was dozing at my keyboard or found myself typing on autopilot. As the September deadline approached, my anxiety increased and little ripples of self-doubt even began to raise concerns about the first few thousand words I had committed to the Dropbox

But then something wonderful happened. As the countdown entered the final days, all sorts of collisions and creative leaps started to happen and disrupt my story for the good.

As I ate, wrote and slept Historyland, my subconscious explorations became richer and the outcomes more interesting. As vignettes from my life randomly resurfaced into the narrative, I was, as they say, now totally in the flow and qualitative and quantitative milestones seemed to be within my reach. What I realised was that whilst it’s great to have a plan – a Germanically disciplined and logically structured outline of a plan – it’s even better to have the pressure that comes from Time’s winged charioteer hurtling towards you at full pelt.

Leonard Bernstein, the maestro and great champion of Artful Learning knew all about this phenomenon. “If you want achieve great things,” he observed, “you have to have a plan, and not quite enough time.

Precept: Do not luxuriate either in the preparation or execution your plan. A fast ticking clock is a wonderful instrument for triggering a strategic breakthrough.

How Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo before Napoleon had even left Elba

The Artful Strategist has a lesson in the geography of anticipation.

Exactly two hundred years ago this week, a score of British infantry battalions, formed up in squares and scattered across a ridge south of Brussels, were under relentless attack from ten thousand French Cavalry who were hurling themselves and their mounts against the battered rows of red jackets and steel bayonets. This was the afternoon of June 18th, and one of the most famous battles in history had reached its most precarious moment when individual bravery counted far more than grand strategy.

Just one hundred days before, Napoleon gave his captors the slip from Elba and landed at Golfe Juan with a handful of his personal troops. Soon the Emperor was marching over the Alps on his way back towards Paris and the alarums of another European war.

Napoleon was Europe’s favourite bogeyman and its other crowned heads were anxiously mustering armies intent on ending once and for all his pursuit of la gloire. In what today we might recognise as a classic challenger brand manoeuvre, Napoleon decided that his best strategy was to defeat in quick succession the two still separated British and Prussian armies gathering on his borders in the north so that he could broker a truce and/or turn his attention to the three other armies forming more tardily in the east.

Napoleon moved quickly and his army crossed the frontier at dawn on the 15th June 1815. Word soon reached the commander of the Anglo-Dutch army, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who with an appropriate sense of a good story was just preparing to go to a dance and famously quipped that Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ him.

Nonetheless Wellington determined that in what was to be their first (and indeed, last) battlefield encounter, he would now return the compliment in his own strategic terms.

He would achieve this by choosing where he was going to give battle, somewhere he had studied and already knew well: It was a place the Duke had discovered while Napoleon was still contemplating an escape from Elba.

Throughout history, the ability to choose good ground has been one of the most important attributes of successful generals. Knowing the right battlefield geography was key to the success of Hannibal at Cannae, Robert Bruce at Bannockburn and the Union cavalry commander Buford, who though massively outnumbered, was able to hold the high ground at Gettysburg against General Lee’s Virginians till the Iron Brigade came to his relief and probably saved the Union.

As a general, Wellington had a marvellously instinctive sense of terrain and collected potential battlefields like some painters collect landscapes. In the summer of 1814, when Europe had been restored to peace, he was travelling on diplomatic duties through what was then the Kingdom of Netherlands when he saw a number of places which he noted were ‘good positions for an army’.

One of these was a wide valley between two ridges situated on the main road from France to Brussels. So if war were to break out again, this would be a possible invasion route. The location went into his commonplace book.

A year later, with panic breaking out in the streets of Brussels but with the British officer class nonchalantly getting togged-up for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, Wellington was able to show his staff exactly where he was going to stop the Napoleonic double whammy.

It was on the northern ridge known as Mont St Jean. We know it today as Waterloo.

Precept: It’s good to maintain a state of healthy paranoia and to develop a heightened appreciation of what may be good ground to compete on. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu puts it: ‘In time of peace, prepare for war; in time of war, prepare for peace.’

‘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.

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

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.

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.

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.


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?

Rules and models destroy genius – William Hazlitt

Business leaders have mixed feelings about the notion of convention. On the one hand, most will acknowledge the role and importance of norms and standard approaches to help manage uncertainty and risk, especially with customers who can be fickle; on the other hand, they can demure at conventional thinking and admire- sometimes in the privacy of their own minds- the disruptive promise of the unconventional.

Convention comes from the late Middle Ages latin and means ‘agreement, by coming together’. Initially, therefore the word described an event and came by extension to mean an agreed rule, practice or method. The Geneva Convention is perhaps one of the most famous examples to be both frequently cited and flouted.

Fifty years before the first Geneva Convention was promulgated in 1864, a middle aged William Hazlitt arrived in Geneva as part of his grand tour of Europe. William was something of a polymath – an artist, writer, critic and essayist who has been dubbed ‘the world’s first blogger’. Clever, thoughtful and unconventional in many ways, especially perhaps in his relationships, Hazlitt’s world view was shaped by the French Revolution, where in 1792, it had been the National Convention which had abolished the monarchy and declared France a Republic. Hazlitt was fascinated by genius and and was a great admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte. For Hazlitt,a touchstone of Napoleon’s greatness was his preparedness to defy all the standard rules of eighteenth century warfare and bring a degree of integration to his army that was absolutely unique and strategically deadly.

The Hazlitt School of Strategist is excited by uncommon sense more than best practice. It acknowledges that strategy models can be useful tools (Brand positioning pyramids!) or even make you a lots of money (Growth/Share Matrices and Value Chains, but they also bring the risk of an unchallenged acceptance of the status quo and even worse, a tedious templatocracy. All good strategic thinking requires a degree of rule breaking – the tricky question of course is knowing which rules to break.

Precept: Does your strategy pass the Hazlitt test?

How much of your strategic thinking is on automatic pilot? What is the ratio of conventional to unconventional wisdom? How many rules are you going to flout? New Model Strategy or Same Old Matrices?

The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity – Douglas Horton

Strategy problems have a tendency to be complicated problems, and one hazard of being a strategic planning mercenary, is that stakeholders like to offload their issues like clothes destined for the charity shop – in assorted bags of stuff where quantity usually outweighs quality. I remember one client looking positively chilled out as he finished his stakeholder interview and turned to me and said ‘And you know what, Paul? If you think you understand our issues, you must be missing something’ and he smiled and handed me another health and safety challenging stack of documents.

We do, like water buffalo, enjoy strategic wallowing rather more than the bold definition of the big issue that really matters and on which we should actually focus our energies.

So the advice is: avoid getting lost in the dark mines of big data and be comfortable listing the top two or- at the most- three issues

Precept: Workshop Your Top Issues

List the top ten issues and then pick five; take the list and craft the top three; then start work-shopping the top three to see if you can now perceive an overarching theme, and with it potential lines of enquiry.