Starting any new project is exciting and daunting. I started a new job this week, but despite the huge amount of preparation that I did in advance, I was still surprised to see the length of my ‘to-do’ list at the end of the first day!


It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of a new challenge, hoping that your enthusiasm and passion for the project will be enough to carry you through that list. People to meet, products to learn, politics to address and profits to be made ~ new project leaders always have a sense of urgency, wanting to achieve as many things as possible as early as possible. Of course they do, they want to make an impact and prove to all those involved that they have the chops to get the job done. Quickly.


This is where most people go wrong.


Because they get too emotional.


They know that they need a strategy to help them drive their project forward (in the right direction), but they often forget that a strategy is something that is supposed to be devoid of emotion. Or bias. Or personal agenda.


This is difficult. Because starting a new project is exciting. Everyone is full of hope and positive emotions.


Especially marketers. And especially me, someone who is emotional about almost everything. Marketers are emotional creatures. We need to be, because we need to create stories about products that capture the hearts and minds of our audience. Even Seth Godin said, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make, but about the stories you tell“. The very act of telling a (good) story is emotional communication at its finest.


But it has no place when defining strategy.


Yes, tap into every emotion you (and your audience) have when tell your stories and communicate your messages ~ but first, figure out what you need to be saying and why. To do that, you need a good strategy.


This is why I have started to re-read Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. It’s a true classic and has been voted by most of the top business magazines as one of the best business books of all time. (It’s one of my top 5 business books of all time).


Strategy is one of the most common words thrown around by marketers these days. I’m pretty sure that if you put ten ‘strategists‘ in a room together and asked them to define what strategy was, you’d probably get ten very different answers.


First, we need to understand exactly what strategy is and more importantly, what it is not. So if we start with the definition, it’s not actually that complicated (despite what expensive consultants may lead you to believe).


A strategy is a cohesive response to an important challenge. It is a set of coherent actions, not to be confused with details of the actual implantation of that strategy (that would be ‘goal setting’). A strategy tells everyone “this is how our organisation is going to move forward“.


Build a strategy is simply figuring out how to advance an organisation’s interests. Business leaders are very good at setting goals and assigning tasks to their teams in order to get a specific thing done, but that is NOT strategy. Strategy outlines the direction and the purpose (why you are going there) ~ the goals, tasks and objectives just play their parts in helping you get there.

In its most basic form, a strategy is the application of strength against weakness or in other words, it’s a business key strength applied to the most promising opportunity. Think about any successful business or brand you admire, and at their core you will find a key strength that they have applied to a weakness in the marketplace (or an audience that wasn’t being served effectively). Think about you business or your project ~ what problem are you solving and how are you going to solve it better than everyone else.

I remember a great scene in the film Moneyball when the owner of the Oakland A’s wanted to know exactly what the coach’s strategy was. He wanted to know just three things:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. How are we going to get there?
  3. What is likely to stop that from happening?


Whether we are in business or in baseball, we (along with our entire team) need to know and understand the answers to these simple questions. A strategy isn’t a grand claim, a fluffy gesture or a list of tasks, but a declaration with a purpose – something that any good strategy should consist of. Richard Rumelt has a slightly different way of looking at it in his book. He says, if you break a good strategy down, it always consist of three parts;

  1. A Diagnosis
  2. A Guiding Policy
  3. A Coherent Action


The guiding policy basically the approach to dealing with the obstacles outlined in the diagnosis. It’s like a signpost, making the direction forward but not defining the exact details of the trip. The coherent actions are practical and feasible coordinated policies and tasks required to carry out the guiding policy. For a thorough explanation you need to read the book (it’s brilliant).


“In the end, people are not persuaded by what we say, but by what they understand”. John C. Maxwell


But here I am, looking down the notes from my first day in my new job. Where do I start? This isn’t a unique problem, which is why I thought I’d write a few thoughts here. Anyone who starts putting together a strategy for a new project always starts off with a long list of tasks and “coherent actions“. Different actions have their own unique sets of problems and the estimated timescales needed to successfully address each one varies wildly.


So what’s the answer? How do we cope? And where do we start?


This is where I believe the good strategists start to set themselves apart from the great strategists.


Good strategists weigh up all the factors, including things that they’ve seen and the viewpoints that they’ve heard, and they make a list of the ten realistic actions that can be executed in an acceptable timeframe.


Seems like the smart thing to do.


Not according to John C. Maxwell (pictured above). Maxwell is probably the top leadership coach in the world, author of 80 books (almost all of them NY Times best sellers), and a wonderful chap I’ve been lucky enough to have spent some time with in the past.


John would tell you about the Pareto principle. You may know it was the 80/20 rule (20% of the customers generate 80% of the sales etc..), but in this instance, Maxwell would say that the Pareto principle lies at the heart of any good strategy.


Yes, make a list of the ten most important things that need to be done. Get everyone to agree on those ten things. And very carefully prioitise them in order of what matters most to the business.


But then comes the hard part.


Pick the top two and do those. And only those. Yes, that beautiful list of tasks with actions that you really want to do ~ you are only allowed to do the top two.


Delegate the other eight, or if you don’t have enough resources (or people), put them off until you have nailed the first two actions.


Do just two things. But do them well.


Marketers really struggle with this because they get emotional about each challenge and they can’t let go of them. I’ve seen it many many times. They worked so hard to cover that room in sticky notes, that they feel emotionally attached to each problem. They become personal challenges that they need to conquer. Or, they let their eternal sense of optimism fool themselves into thinking that they can do all ten (with the right project planning and prioritisation).


They are wrong.


Good strategists (leaving their emotions at the door), pick the top two and get on with the task in hand. In most cases, things get done quicker, with a higher degree of excellence, and with better results. Not always. But most of the time.


“However beautiful the strategy, we should occasionally look at the results”. Winston Churchill


This is often how presidents and new chief executives work, and why they talk about how their first 100 days is the most important.


I think it’s good advice, and advice which I’ll be aiming to carry out myself.


Because when there’s a lot of things to be done, what you don’t do is probably more important than what you do do!


“I’m more proud of the things we didn’t do, than I am of what we did”. Steve Jobs


Not convinced? Take a look at this presentation I made a while a go. It’s a bit dated now, but you’ll get the idea.

Communications Designer @IBM • Climate Reality Leader • Lover of Old Business Books, Clever Technology and the NHS • Based in London, UK.

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