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Strategic Inception

Most of the best strategies I've encountered hinge on a single strategic insight.

Or, perhaps, a very small number of them.

Peter Compo, author of "The Emergent Approach to Strategy" calls this The Bottleneck. Richard Rumelt, author of "Good Strategy, Bad Strategy" calls it The Crux. Military historians talk about Napoleon's Glance.

Even better is when that single strategic insight is so compelling it one cannot fail to act on it. When it is so elegantly simple that, once seen, it cannot be unseen.

In one client I worked with, it was the realisation that customers who exhibited a certain behaviour were over 4 times more likely to purchase their product than those that did not. In another, it was understanding how their sales teams actually spent their time, given that they lacked the data and support which would enable them to act more effectively. (Apologies that confidentiality requires me to be a little vague about the details! In both cases, of course, the context is vital.)

Leonardo DiCaprio in the firm Inception
Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception
In the film "Inception", the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio says "Once and ideas has taken hold of the brain, it's almost impossible to eradicate."

In that film, the protagonists have access to fantastical technology for embedding ideas in people's brains in a process they call Inception.

Sadly (or perhaps gladly, when you see how the film turns out), we don't have access to that.

And so our work is:

  1. to keep delving until we uncover that single strategic insight that compels action, leaving no stone unturned until you have the Eureka! moment,
  2. to embed it throughout the organisation through regular repetition of an elegantly simple explanation of that insight,
  3. without becoming so beholden to it, that we fail to notice and adjust when the circumstances around us change.

We can, of course, settle for less. There are plenty of strategies which are "good enough". But if we want truly great strategies, then that is the task we must set ourselves.

The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed

"The future is already here" #strategyquotes card
"The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed." - William Gibson*

This is one of my favourite quotes about the future.

People say that it is hard to imagine what the future could be like.

But the clues are all around us.

There are the science fiction writers extrapolating current trends into imaginary futures. There are the early adopters using barely ready products in ways that might never have been anticipated. There are boffins in white coats discovering new technologies. The are other industries who've found innovative solutions which could be adapted to our own. There are the dreamers and innovators hidden in plain sight among us.

To see the future, we only have to look hard enough.

COVID provided a great example of this. It forced many to adopt remote working for the first time. But pioneers had been doing this for decades and could demonstrate best practice to those willing to look.

Similarly, scientists had been worrying about climate change long before it penetrated popular consciousness.

All it requires is for us to look: widely and with curiosity. To see things and say "I wonder..." rather than "that'll never work for us!"

In business strategy, we talk about detecting "weak signals" and "separating the signal from the noise". It requires systematic application. But it can - and should - be done.

And provides the perfect platform for doing so!

* William Gibson is an American-Canadian science fiction writer.

Why you should engage an independent business strategy consultant in your first 100 days

Image of a calendar

Your first 100 days in a CEO post are critical. The whole organisation is watching to see what you will do.

Will you make big changes? What style will you employ?

And you may have big ideas about both.

They're the reason you signed up for this gig. They may even be what you got you to the top of the pile of applicants in the first place.

But now that you've got your feet under the desk, it's turning out not to be as easy as you thought.

The organisation's problems seem a little more complex. The data you need is unavailable or not as clear as you'd hope it would be. Some members of your team don't seem as co-operative as you'd like.

You know you could sort it out. But you just don't have the time to get round to it all. Fires keep popping up and draining your attention: an unhappy customer, a problem in production, an underperforming staff member.

The high hopes you started the role with are starting to sink.

That's when you need help.

The challenge

Your challenge in the first 100 days is to:

1. Build strong relationships with your team

You represent change - you are a change. And that can be unsettling. The period of time leading to your arrival, and the reason a new CEO was required in the first place might also have been unsettling.

So it is important to invest time in building strong relationships of trust. And that requires listening and learning. Which brings us to:

2. Establish the specific facts on the ground

You have plenty of experience. You may even know the industry very well. But you probably don't know the specifics of this particular business.

You need to take time to understand the problems that the people who work there every day experience, as well as how outside stakeholders (customers, shareholders, distributors, suppliers, etc.) experience the organisation. You need to understand the history of why the organisation is the way it is. And you need to do so without appearing to cast blame. This requires talking to people and listening to what they say with patience and openness.

3. Come up with a diagnosis

Eventually, you will need to come up of the fence and give a view on what you believe the underlying challenges and opportunities facing the organisation are.

This may not be fundamentally different to what you thought when you started the process (although it probably won't be). But because you took the time to listen, people will feel more invested in your conclusions.

4. Introduce new ideas slowly and deliberately

You will almost certainly want to introduce new ideas. But do so slowly and deliberately. Give people time to digest the new ideas, to understand the benefits, and to consider the application of the ideas in their specific context.

Think of yourself like a teacher, revealing new concepts to their students incrementally, and allowing them time to explore and absorb them.

5. Propose a plan of action

The best plan of action is one that comes from your team. Your role is to coach, coax and challenge.

It's important to be realistic about the rate of change the organisation is able to sustain. It's unrealistic to expect an organisation to go from under-performance to high-performance overnight. So your plan may need to incorporate a sustained programme of improving the capacity for change itself.

The hardest parts of any plan are those that involve people. Perhaps a restructure is in order. Or perhaps you've concluded that some key members of your team are not right for their roles and require development, redeployment or even a managed exit. This is where the groundwork you've laid in previous steps will pay extra dividends.

6. Focus on the Why

We know that people respond better when they understand the Why of what is being asked of them. So it helps to distil your diagnosis and plan into a clear an compelling explanation why it matters.

This can take the form of a statement of purpose, a mission statement or a vision statement. It should tap into people's emotions as well as appeal to their logic.

7. Communicate

It will be hard to over-communicate during this period. Your new team are trying to learn how you operate, what they can expect from you, and what you expect from them.

And they will need constant reminders of your diagnosis, plan, and their role and contribution in establishing these.

All of this takes work, application and effort.

The solution (part of it)

And an independent business strategy consultant is just the right kind of person to give you the help you need.

They can provide:

1. Capacity and Experience

While you're fighting those fires and attending to the myriad other things that come with the role, a consultant can be digging into that data, conducting research, generating and evaluating options. And because they have plenty of experience of having done this before, they'll need limited guidance and can keep you appraised of only the most important and relevant conclusions, saving you time.

2. Objectivity

Your new team are still sussing you out and vying for position. Maybe they were even hoping for the top job themselves. Perhaps they'd sooner see you fail than change the status quo.

An independent consultant has no such vested interests. So they can give you an unbiased and objective assessment, as well as a fresh perspective on what's really happening.

This fresh perspective is particularly important if your existing team has been in the organisation for some time. They're as likely to be part of the problem you need to solve as they are to understand it or know how to solve it.

3. Ownership

With an independent consultant, you can agree the terms of the engagement up front.  These can include your strategic ambitions and concerns. The consultant is there to do the heavy lifting to confirm or disconfirm your hypotheses and to fill in the blanks.

They don't bring their own agenda. They don't bring the pre-packaged solutions that they just sold to your competitors. They don't overwhelm you with an army of junior consultants, muddying the water and burning your political capital with your new team.

And when they're done, they leave you, the owner of your strategy.

4. Cost effectiveness

A short, sharp engagement can be very cost-effective. You get all of the long-term benefits outlined above. But you only pay for the duration of the engagement.

Contact me, if you're looking for help in your first 100 days.

See also:

Helmuth von Moltke The Elder

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the renowned Prussian general and military strategist, left an indelible mark on the field of strategy. Born in 1800, Moltke's contributions to the art of warfare continue to influence military thinking to this day. His ideas and principles provide valuable insights not only in the context of the battlefield but also in various domains where strategy plays a vital role.

Moltke firmly believed in the dynamic nature of strategy. He emphasized the importance of adapting plans to changing circumstances and understanding the fluidity of the battlefield. His famous quote, "No plan survives contact with the enemy," encapsulates this sentiment. Moltke recognized that strategy should be flexible, enabling commanders to adjust their tactics as the situation evolves.

Another key aspect of Moltke's strategic thinking was the holistic approach strategy. He understood that military action should be integrated with political, economic, and social factors. Moltke recognized that a comprehensive understanding of the broader context is essential for developing effective strategies. This concept of viewing strategy as a multidimensional endeavour is equally applicable in business, politics, and any domain that requires long-term planning and decision-making.

Moltke's emphasis on the importance of clear objectives is another valuable lesson. He believed that setting specific goals and aligning all efforts towards their achievement was crucial for success. This principle holds true in any strategic endeavour, whether it is formulating a marketing campaign, managing a project, or even pursuing personal goals. Defining clear objectives allows for focused efforts and better resource allocation.

Moreover, Moltke's strategic philosophy emphasized the significance of understanding one's strengths and weaknesses. He recognized that an accurate assessment of capabilities, as well as those of the opponent, is essential for devising effective strategies. This self-awareness and realistic evaluation of the situation are crucial in making informed decisions and exploiting opportunities while mitigating risks.

Helmuth von Moltke's contributions to strategy extend far beyond the battlefield. His principles of flexibility, integration, clear objectives, and self-awareness provide valuable insights applicable to various domains. Whether it is in military campaigns, business ventures, or personal pursuits, Moltke's strategic thinking remains relevant and continues to inspire those seeking success through well-crafted strategies.

All of the above is a simple excuse to post this picture ;-)

I was lucky enough to visit Berlin last week and chanced across this statue of Moltke whilst walking through the Tiergarten. So I asked my daughter to take this picture. She thought it would make a pleasant change from "all that boring strategy stuff you talk about". Little did she know...

Image of me standing at the statue of Moltke in the Tiergarten

It's not just all about the customer

Feet standing on a smiley face

Many people talk about business strategy as if it is all just about satisfying customer needs.

It's not.

Satisfying customer needs is an important - vital, even - part of it. But just satisfying customer needs alone is not enough. It also matters who satisfies them and how they do it.

I propose that there are three levels of thinking in this area.

1. It's all about satisfying customer needs.

This is the most basic level of thinking - as described above. What I would describe as a "marketing-oriented" or "outside-in" view of strategy.

(This is not intended as a criticism of marketing or marketers! It's an important perspective. But only part of the puzzle.)

It works from the assumption that all we need to do is to work out what customers want and need, and then work out how to give it to them.

It's an important piece of the puzzle - but there is much more to thinking about an organisation strategically.

2. It's all about matching the organisation's capabilities to customer needs.

A more "inside-out" approach would first consider the organisations capabilities and resources, and then look for customers who want what that can provide.

But at this level it is much more likely that people take a more blended and balanced view of both the outside-in and inside-out approaches, asking questions like "What is that customers want and need that this organisation is uniquely well placed to deliver?"

After all, it probably doesn't matter what customers want if there are already a handful of competitors better able to deliver it than you are. They will simply beat you out of the market.

I may know exactly what customers want from a search engine. I may even know what frustrates them about Google. But that doesn't mean I can beat Google in delivering it. Despite all its resources, even Microsoft's Bing struggles to find space in Google's shadow. And just as people thought Microsoft/Bing's partnership with ChatGPT might give it the upper hand, Google countered with Bard.

Even then, as markets become more complex, we need to think even deeper than that.

3. It's about facilitating the creation of value within an ecosystem.

It's not just the organisation and its customers. You also have to consider suppliers (and supply chains), distributors, competitors (or co-opetitors), substitutes and all other players and stakeholders in the ecosystem. 

As new business models emerge, these ecosystems

become more complex. The distinctions between customers, suppliers and distributors become blurred. The relationships between them shift from a linear value chain to more of a network of value.

Few organisations have the power to act alone and unilaterally to satisfy customers' needs. They are dependent on the ecosystems within which they operate.

And therefore, managing an organisation's role within the ecosystem becomes more important - defining its boundaries, optimising its interactions with all players, etc. The organisation plays a role in matching and transforming value between a variety of players in a variety of ways.

For example, VHS did not defeat Betamax because it had a better understanding of customers wants and needs, but because it had a better understanding of how to play in the ecosystem which ultimately delivered it - with better content licensing, marketing and partnerships, amongst other things.

Similarly, a large part of the battle between Apple and Android is fought, not over the devices themselves, but over the strength and diversity of the ecosystems which support them.

On the other hand, rivals Airbus and Boeing co-operate on the development of new air traffic management systems and have worked together on initiatives to improve airline safety and efficiency.

Which level of thinking is required may vary from one context to the next. For example, the first level may be more than adequate for a small retail outlet or a family restaurant. But as organisations and the industries in which they operate become more complex, that level of thinking is unlikely to be enough.

How much change is enough?

I can't promise you that if things change they will get better, but I can promise you that if they don't, they won't.

Most people don't like change very much.

It can be difficult, uncomfortable, and the outcome is often uncertain.

In fact, as Niccolo Machiavelli said in The Prince: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." (Tweet this)

But, without change, nothing would ever ... well ... change.

Not only might that get a little boring, but, as I always like to say: "I can't promise you that if things change they will get better, but I can promise you that if they don't, they won't." (Tweet this)

On the other hand, too much change leads to change fatigue. People become overwhelmed. They start to lose focus. They start to make mistakes.

So what is the right amount and rate of change? How much change do we really need? How much is too much? And how much is too little?

I draw on Ashby's Law for inspiration.

Ashby's Law (also known as The Law of Requisite Variety) states that: "When the variety or complexity of the environment exceeds the capacity of a system (natural or artificial) the environment will dominate and ultimately destroy that system." (Source) (Tweet this)

It seems we could adapt that to organisation change: "When the rate of change in the environment exceeds the rate of change in the organisation, the environment will ultimately destroy that organisation." (Tweet this)

So, the organisation must change at least as fast the external environment is changing.

That leaves us with three questions:

  1. How fast is the external environment changing?
  2. How quickly is the organisation changing?
  3. How can we increase the rate at which the organisation is changing (if we need to)?

A good SWOT analysis can and should help us answer the first two questions. The Opportunities and Threats will tell you how fast the external environment is changing. The Strengths and Weaknesses will tell you how fast the organisation is changing (or, at least, how fast it is capable of changing).

(See also: 12 techniques to help you do a better SWOT analysis.)

However, measuring the rate of change in an organisation or its internal environment is not an exact science. Some subject comparison will be required. This can be supplemented by gathering feedback from staff, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

Increasing the rate of change is even more tricky.

I would advocate the following:

  1. Break the change into the smallest chunks that produce meaningful results as possible. Pursue them, as much as possible, in series, rather than parallel. Smaller chunks are less daunting. Meaningful results create opportunities for real learning  and encouragement to continue. Pursuing them in series rather than parallel limits the amount of change that is happening at any point in time. It also ensures that some results are delivered as quickly as possible.
  2. Be sure to articulate a clear vision about how all of those small changes add up to more than the sum of the parts. People need to understand the logic (the Logos) of what they are doing. Show the individual changes as a roadmap towards the vision.
  3. Create a safe environment for change. Things will inevitably go wrong. A safe environment defines outcomes not in terms of success or failure, but in terms of hypotheses tested, data gathered and learnings achieved. (See also: It's time we stopped idolising failure in innovation.)

If you have other ideas about how to determine and/or increase the right rate of change in organisations, I'd love to hear them. Please drop a note in the comments below.

The ethos, pathos, logos and kairos of business strategy

Bust of Aristotle
Aristotle (from Wikipedia)
Ethos, pathos, logos and kairos are modes of persuasion which originate in ancient Greek philosophy.

Understanding and using each in the strategies we develop and execute, and in how we present them to others, is vital to achieving good outcomes.


Is it well-reasoned?

The first standard that any strategy must meet is that it must be well reasoned from verifiable evidence or clearly stated assumptions.

Likewise, the first challenge we face when communicating strategy is to convey that evidence and logic to our audience.

From all the causes and effects which could or do impact a business, we must pick and convey only the most salient ones.

As strategists, we have numerous models and frameworks to help us to achieve this.


Does it connect to our emotions?

Reason alone, however, is often insufficient to motivate people to do something difficult or to change.

For that, as most marketers are well aware, we also need to appeal to people's emotions; to tap into their personal hopes, desires and fears.

For this, we use techniques like story-telling to communicate in a way that resonates on a personal level.


Is it good?

Deep down, most people want to believe they are good and do good. Of course, definitions of "good" may vary widely.

A strategy which overtly aligns with, taps into and supports people's sense of goodness is much more likely to be well received and succeed than one which does not.

In Greek philosophy, ethos required that the speaker making a presentation be deemed to be of good and virtuous character.

In modern terms, we talk more often about purpose, trustworthiness, authenticity and credibility. Ethos is often demonstrated through alignment with shared values and transparency in communications.

Ethos applies to the leadership presenting and leading a strategy, as well as to the strategy itself.


Is this the right time and place?

The right strategy at the wrong time is as useless as the wrong strategy.

We often talk about a window of opportunity. If our strategy is too far ahead of its time, the market may lack the willingness or infrastructure for it to succeed - we may need to slow it down. If it is too late, other potentially better solutions may already be available.

When presenting our strategy, we must consider our audience's level of knowledge (logos) and likely emotional (pathos and ethos) reaction before we start. Our presentation must guide them (and their beliefs) from where they are to where we need them to be. Rushing in with the solution too soon may cause you to lose your audience and can cause them to raise barriers which will make it even harder to get your message across.

Think of your strategy like a film

In the world of strategy, the interplay of ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos creates a powerful recipe for success. Just like they do for a good film.

A good film will grapple with the battle between good and evil (ethos), is populated by characters we can relate to, root for or against, and imagine how we would react and feel in those circumstances (pathos), has a plot which is internally consistent and makes sense, (logos) provides sufficient context for when and where the film is set, and plays out at a pace which is neither to quick nor to slow (kairos).

If all of those ingredients are present and balanced, we will be drawn into the film experience. If any are missing or weak, the illusion is shattered.


Ethos, pathos, logos and kairos all appear in Aristotle's Rhetoric.

We would be well advised to leverage these timeless principles to develop and present strategies that resonate, motivate, and drive positive outcomes.

Post of Ethos, Pathos, Logos and Kairos definitions