Can I have a comms strategy with that? Lessons from a business classic

pexels-photo-358562Whether you’re fighting a war, trying to lose weight, running a health campaign, trying to win the Premier League or – dare I say it -planning your communications you’ve got to have a strategy.

In fact strategy has become such a ubiquitous and at times widely misused word that it’s little wonder many of us feel that cold shiver of dread when asked “what’s the communications strategy for this?”

Communications strategy is widely debated online and is invariably one of the most front facing and high profile issues for most public sector organisations so that alone makes it important.

Add to that the basic fact that in our corporate world everyone wants to be ‘strategic’, rather than the dreaded ‘tactical’.

With that in mind I took a look at one of the most revered books on strategy with an eye on how it could be used to think about our own approach to communications.

Good strategy/bad strategy by Richard Rumelt has been described as a milestone in theory and a business classic, taking a grand sweep of history through topics as diverse as the Iraq war, the launch of the iPhone, the first moon landings and many detailed corporate case studies.

His starting point is that most organisations do not have a coherent strategy in any real sense, but instead have myriad visions, values, aspirations and various other forms of management gobbledegook.

This will ring true for many people working in the public sector where we often have more visions than Nostradamus.

He says the core of strategy work is never easy but that it is straightforward and his work looks at discovering the critical factors in any situation and working out a way of focusing all your efforts to overcome them.

Although I confess to skim reading some of the later chapters that looked at detailed business strategy, the book is very readable and here are some of the key things that I took away from it:

Bad strategy

He starts by looking very closely at what makes bad strategy and claims that we’ve all become so used to slogans or long lists of goals being labelled as corporate strategy that we’ve become blind to any real meaning.

He devotes a whole chapter to spotting bad strategy which includes what he calls fluff and the increasingly common use of baroque corporate language:

“Bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of brand goals, ambition, vision and values……a mish mash of pop culture, motivational slogans and business buzz speak is unfortunately increasingly common”

Good strategy

According to the bool strategy should be a cohesive response to any important challenge. He describes a logical structure which he calls the kernel and has three key elements:

  1. A diagnosis of the challenges
  2. A guiding policy that sets out the approach to the problems based on the diagnosis
  3. The coherent action and resources required

Focus and the importance of choice

Good strategy has to be about choosing one path over another and then focusing exclusively on that – a long list of aspirations is not a strategy – it’s just a list of things someone wants to happen.

“Strategy is as much about what an organisation does not do, as it is about what it does,” he says.

An inherent part of strategy is explicitly choosing one path over another and he argues that many fall down because they are unable or unwilling to make painful decisions about where to focus effort and where to stop doing things. The ability of leaders to say no is crucial.

The power of simplicity

I was really pleased to read his views on simplicity because I’ve blogged about this in my own work several times (see here & here).

He uses the example of a strategy document from the cold war which broke with received wisdom and looked to gain a genuine competitive advantage. Strategic defence at that time had become an endless, reactive system of annual budget reviews that was more about justifying areas of spending.

The new strategy recommended increased spending on high technology (where America had far more resources), which would then place exorbitant costs on the Soviet economy, because they would be so expensive to counter. Instead of basing the strategy on defending against Soviet strengths, they would instead attack their weakness.

“There were no complex charts or graphs, no abstruse formulas, no acronym-jammed buzz speak: just an idea and some pointers to how it might be used—the terrible simplicity of the discovery of hidden power in a situation.”

What, why and how

Detailed understanding and analysis is one of the key themes of the book and before taking any action you must understand the situation and define the problem. When looking at difficult problems he says it’s human nature to welcome the first reasonable solution, but by taking more time to consider alternatives you have a better chance of devising a successful strategy.

Good strategy should focus on a source of advantage that defines exactly how you will achieve your aims, while ruling out all the other possible actions. Three important lessons:

  • Reduce the complexity and ambiguity
  • Anticipate the actions and reactions of others
  • Gain leverage and multiply advantage

Having said all that success is still dependent on doing something and then taking action:

“Without action, the world would still be an idea” General Georges F Doriot

Proximate objectives

These must be realistic targets that the organistaion can expect to achieve, set in a way that progresses from one stage to the next. Even something as ambitious as the moon landings used a ladder strategy to reach its ultimate goal ( develop rockets, rocket in space, unmanned space mission etc)

Priorities

To change strategy you normally need to change organisational culture as well and this is very difficult to do. People usually forget their larger purpose and get distracted or caught up by the pull of immediate events. It’s vital to understand purpose because our attention and capacity as humans is finite. We can’t do everything so it’s hugely important to know what’s important and what’s not.

All the best strategies focus on one aspect of the situation and not being all things to everyone.

No guarantees

He does kindly let us all off the hook by writing that every strategy is a hypothesis about what will work. It’s always an educated guess and there are no guarantees it will be a success.

 

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