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?

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.

Art can be to everyone an inspiration – William Hesketh Lever 1922

It was a beautiful morning in Port Sunlight. I was there for work and I was early which provided a wonderful opportunity to walk around the village in the footsteps of William Hesketh Lever, the man who died in 1925 but who had a profound effect on my life.

William Lever was the founder of the business which is today called Unilever and Port Sunlight was the site of his original soap factory where he manufactured Sunlight and the garden suburb he built for his workers.

It’s also the location of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the monument he built to his wife which houses the extensive art collection they gifted to the nation. It was there in one of the many rooms that I saw the quotation at the top of this post and came to understand that Willam Lever, one of the greatest brand managers of all time was in fact the original artful strategist.