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.