We Need More Than Just Strategists

We Need More Than Just Strategists - Brass Tack ThinkingIt seems like everyone wants to be a strategist, doesn’t it? Have a wander through LinkedIn and pretty much it’s on everyone’s bio. Including mine.

In part, it’s because “strategy” sounds important. We beat the hell out of the strategic drum all the time. You need to have a strategy. Strategy is everything. Strategy is the holy grail, the rest is just pieces and disparate tactics.

In part, it’s also because strategy is important. Having a guiding direction that aligns and unifies all your separate initiatives is a must if you don’t want the wheels to come off halfway down the road.

So is it really any wonder that people want to be seen as strategic thinkers?

But it’s also okay to be the person who does something  that isn’t strategy development.  Because we need you now as much as we ever have. 

It’s okay to be the builder instead of the architect. The cook or the outstanding server instead of the master chef. The navigator and the guide instead of the map-maker.

As our work and businesses evolve, there is a critical need for people who can understand the vision and strategy as presented to them, but who are uniquely qualified and enthusiastic about putting all the pieces together to actually make the thing work.

I don’t believe that either ideas or execution are more intrinsically valuable, though some would debate me on that. They’re symbiotic, because neither really survives without the other, and their individual merit is exponentially increased when both work together.

But in that symbiotic relationship, we need practitioners on all sides.

Not everyone needs to conceptualize the big picture. Not everyone needs to be able to envision the future. In fact, in order for the very best strategic thinkers to actually see their visions become reality and do what they do, they absolutely must have the very best navigators on their side that can put the freaking boat in the water and sail somewhere.

Make no mistake: the choice here isn’t between “grunt” work and “sophisticated” work. The point is that we need to rethink our value judgments around the varied and distinct contributions that people make within an organization and what role they play.

The people that have a talent for assimilating, processing, and methodically implementing ideas, programs and strategies and who can then iterate on that building over time to improve it and make it better?

That is critical work. And it’s something we are going to need most of all while we are kicking the tires of everything from new marketing models to entire new business structures and outcomes.

The best person to realize a strategy is often not the person who created it, and vice versa.

We have think of new lenses for how we view our individual work and contributions.

We need to recognize that creation, improvement, innovation, and evolution are all ecosystems that require many different contributions from many different people in order to thrive.

So it’s okay not to be a “strategist” on your business card. In fact, that might not be at all what we need from you.

Your brilliance might be in taking a strategy and actually making it functional in the real world (trust me when I tell you that most ‘strategies’, when put on paper, aren’t viable for a business that functions in reality). It might be in translating programs into measurable objectives and developing accountability programs to keep them on track. It might be gathering and analyzing the data upon which other people need to make decisions.

Strategy is important, yes. But it’s hardly the only thing. And as the walls come tumbling down between our skills and our roles, our departments and business units, our company and our customers and partners, we’re going to need all hands on deck to make it work in a multitude of ways.

Do you really know and understand the value you bring to your organization or clients? Is it really strategy, or is it something else?

Are you sure?

  • http://twitter.com/DanOnBranding Dan Gershenson

    Here’s part of the issue – some people don’t even know how to lead with strategy. They’re tacticians playing at that role. It’s dangerous to me when someone gets up in front of a room and says, “You should be on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus.” Oh really? Just going to put that blanket statement out there without getting to know anything about the audience? What about brand architecture? What about ideas? Or is it just chic to talk about Instagram and hashtags first before anything? To be clear, you make some very good points here about division of roles where appropriate. I’m just rather amazed by where, when and how brand strategy is being undervalued in the process by some in relation to tactical thinking.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      That’s kind of the point. Strategy isn’t everyone’s job, not developing it anyway. It might be important for them to understand a strategy that exists and why it’s important, but that doesn’t mean they need to come up with it.

      What you’re referring to, Dan, is a bit of a different problem. That’s representing tactical work AS strategy, which is an issue, but isn’t not what I’m driving at here. I’m not questioning strategy’s importance. Far from it. And it’s what I’m best at, so it’s where I focus my work.

      But the point here isn’t that strategy isn’t valuable, or that it isn’t often misrepresented. It’s to get people thinking about whether or not that’s the kind of work they’re really suited to, and let them know that there are other very critical components to a business plan or even individual initiatives that have every bit as much value even if they’re not nearly as lauded in all the discussions we have.

  • http://mccallumsolutions.com Tom McCallum

    Great article. As a Shirlaws Coach, we work on this area frequently with clients to help them play to their strengths. Today, in fact, we ran a half day workshop for a client executive team to bring awareness to a model we use around four operational styles. It produced remarkable learnings for them around how they can more effectively hand off from one to the other as a team.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Had to look up Shirlaws Coaches, Tom, but sounds like fun. What I think is missing in a lot of businesses, especially today, is a thorough evaluation OF those strengths, especially in unexpected places. In our work with social business, we end up looking at people across an organization, many of whom have totally different but equally important capabilities. Sounds a lot like what you’re talking about here.

      • http://mccallumsolutions.com Tom McCallum

        Amber, it is LOTS of fun, I quite literally bounce out of bed every day. Comes from living on purpose in a business focussed organisation that is also on purpose and values based.

        Coaching is all about awareness, whether individual or business coaching. Before the four steps needed to create change we need ot have that awareness of the possibilities, issues etc.

        As Business Coaches, we have numerous tools and frameworks so that businesses can see they need more than strategists, they need implementers, visionaries, communicators, as well as those who are brilliant and assessing and analysing the results.

        Similar to people skewing towards wanting to be seen as Strategists, there is also a bias towards being Leaders. If we were all leaders, who would manage ?

        One way to look at it is to assess the strengths and natural operating styles of individuals and then bring that awareness (through online indicators, workshops, projects etc) to teams.

        It is work I love, as I love driving both personal and asset value.

        Interesting ? Useful ?

        Oh, and keep on doing what you do. You’ve been an inspiration to me for years !

  • http://twitter.com/SueOnTheWeb Sue

    An excellent point. Being in the trenches and applying the strategy to reach goals can often be the hardest (and most underrated) part.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      We all love to talk strategy, because it often centers around “potential”: here’s what we *could* achieve, how we want it to work, how we envision the results, etc. But it’s really important to invest heavily in the pieces that it takes to actually move from concept to reality, which is where the hard work is.

  • http://twitter.com/triveraguy Tom Snyder

    This really hit home. As a high profile local digital agency owner, I too have been banging the drum on the need for a strategic approach since the genesis of social media as a marketing tool. As the number of tools, apps and platforms that comprise the tactical possibilities grew exponentially, I have lately found myself feeling increasingly inadequate (“How do I create meaningful ROI for my B2B on Houzz?” “What’s better, Hootsuite or Buffer?”). I use the quote from Sun Tzu in my presentations: Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. But have been neglecting the follow up “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.”
    I realized that if I didn’t surround myself with skilled tacticians, I was not going to be able truly serve my customers. So we’re sucking it up and making the investment to restructure my agency by acquiring a local firm that’s big on tactics, but not strong on strategy.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Tom, so glad that it’s something you realized and are adding in to your business. It’s an investment that will surely pay dividends. Keep us posted on how things work out having some new skills on the team.

      • http://twitter.com/triveraguy Tom Snyder

        I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out. We were hired by two politicians a few years back to rescue the Social aspect of their campaigns. One had a bunch of recent grads from a university with a great Social Media program, the other just had their team. Both got the same depth of strategy and direction from me, but the one with the talented, formally educated tacticians handily won their election, while the other was soundly defeated. Obviously there were other factors in the races, but there was lesson to be learned that I should have seen back then.

  • Chris

    ‘Strategy’ is now as meaningless a piece of LinkedIn furniture as ‘leadership’. In some cases it’s confused with basic project management; in other cases it’s there to gloss over a complete lack of practical skills. LinkedIn is bursting at the seams with social media strategists with zero social skills, and content strategists who can’t put a simple email together. I’m eagerly awaiting the emergence of strategy strategists.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Oh, I don’t think strategy is meaningless, not at all. How the *term* is used? Well, that sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. But we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just need to get better at focusing our discussions on what we really mean, and directing our resources accordingly.

      I totally understand your frustration, but there are charlatans and lousy professionals in every discipline and have been since the dawn of time. I’m not going to prevent them from existing, but what I can do is help the really GOOD professionals think a little harder about what they’re really good at, and where their contributions are best made.

      • Chris

        Agreed… of course there are genuine and effective strategists. There’s just so much idle talk around it, you know? I love your analogy of architects and builders, but architects still require seven-year degrees. I guess the proof is in what a strategist has already achieved – like you say, there are charlatans everywhere. Great post by the way.

        • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

          I definitely know. It’s like anything else. It’s such a broad-brush term that it’s easy to be, uh, “loose” with interpretation. And yep, we have to judge strategists on what they do and accomplish, not what’s on their business card.

  • clarestweets

    Great post Amber! I’d like to expand on your thoughts by offering that strategy and execution should not and cannot be separated today.We used to have a linear approach, strategize, plan, execute. Today, both must be done simultaneously. I call it taking strategic action, in which clients learn a strategic thinking process based on a decision cycle that enables immediate execution and reduces expensive trial and error, spin the wheel tactics.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I don’t think strategy and execution should have *ever* been separated. The process is cyclical and parallel, all part of an intertwined system. You plan, you do, you assess, you learn, you plan some more. In good business, all of those things are always happening. I get what you’re saying, but I’m not so sure that the linear process you’re describing was ever really a viable one, or one that was/is accepted as part of a successful business.

      • clarestweets

        Totally agree with your points! Not viable, but often practiced. Sadly, I’ve observed the linear process being followed too often in large companies where different teams were tasked with strategy and execution.

  • http://twitter.com/spoppe Steve Poppe

    Great thoughts Amber. The doers execute the strategy — and are vital. Moreover, they provide the measures of the strategy. Problem is, we often measure the tactics not the strategy and, honestly, most strategy in marketing is really tactical direction anyway.
    All those strategists on LinkedIn you talk about wouldn’t know a brand strategy, were it spinach on their teeth. Hee hee.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Yeah like Dan was alluding to, the disparity between strategy and tactics and what belongs in those camps is another discussion entirely. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/amy.mcgibbon Amy McGibbon Lang

    Finally! Someone is willing to publicly recognize the importance and value of the trench-diggers, the builders, the incredible folks who have to execute the vision! Great timing on this post Amber, thank you! And Dan G is spot on; the world does seem awfully overcrowded with tacticians ready with their lists without knowing any of the background info. I used to want to “fix” them. Now I avoid them.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      It’s so important. There’s no way that the strategies we design would be remotely possible without the teams that look at them, evaluate them, and then test them. We can’t and don’t want to do everything, so a great implementation team and specialists in the right places are critical to our clients’ success.

  • http://contentstud.io/ Emily Breder

    I’ve been doing all of the above for a few years now, and you’re right, “strategist” doesn’t cover it. But I don’t know what to call what I do in a way that potential clients will understand… so “strategist” it has remained,, but with a line of additional things I do trailing along behind it. Any thoughts on that front?

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I think it’s actually really hard to say “I do everything”. Because few people truly do everything and do it well, and personally as both a client and a consultant, I don’t necessarily trust someone who tries to tell me they can do everything with equal ability. If strategy really is your strong suit, go with it. Emphasize it. Then be willing to let go of the other things. Or if your strong suit is taking their strategy and making it work, then emphasize your implementation skills.

  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/ Davina K. Brewer

    Think this is something I’ve always tried to balance – being a doer, being a roll up my sleeves type b/c just talking about it, just planning won’t get it done. And as someone who also consultants as a strategist, it gets tricky. You’re right – the walls are shifting, roles are morphing – and it’s important to recognize the strengths, the incredible worth and value of those implementing the vision. FWIW.

  • http://twitter.com/caroljsroth Carol Roth

    I was a strategist before everyone else decided to co-opt the word (which I ultimately dropped since it was diluted per your brilliant discourse above). The problem, as you well know, is that most people don’t even know the difference between strategy and tactics, let alone have the experience and ability to be able to execute either. Thanks for a great piece.

  • Concetta Phillipps

    Amber, great article.

    Part of the problem is that those of us who are the trench diggers (makers) get no respect. So we add things like “strategist” to our bios and such because it at least gets us some notice and people say “Oh, you’re a strategist, you’re worthy of my time”. If you say “I took this great strategy by X, executed it by doing A, B, C” people don’t say “Wow, I want you”….they say “I want X in this project!”

    In my head, I believe there’s always a Wozniak to back up Jobs, or Allen to back up Gates. You need the pair (the strategist and the maker) in order to make the strategy actually happen. I try to be the bridge between the makers and the strategists, helping balance the strategy with the limintations of the situation and areas where, with some additional resources, we can make things happen.

  • http://twitter.com/amoration ? evonne heyning ?

    I make the map and I guide you through it. It’s important for me to keep producing as much as facilitating or strategizing with groups. The two flow well together.

  • http://twitter.com/Lissansky Ana Lissansky

    IMO the best strategists are those who were excellent executionists for a good amount of time, but moved into strategy as part of career progression and desire. I know plenty of amazing executionists who still love “doing the work” and I appreciate that your post highlights their value! The point is, when something comes out great in the end, the success shouldn’t be attributed to the strategist alone.