3 Ways to Get Better Strategy from Your Team

Bet­ter strat­egy helps you make the right deci­sions, even when every­one else is fol­low­ing the indus­try leader. Fresh, direct think­ing is worth real dol­lars. Don’t leave the money sit­ting there. Instead, develop strate­gic think­ing on your team. I’ll tell you how I do it in my class­room, and how I do it in my company.

Note: I was recently asked to be on a really fun panel by my friends at eROI up in Port­land called “Change is the Only Con­stant: Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing in 2–15.” While I was talk­ing about strate­gic sto­ry­telling, the mod­er­a­tor asked me how we’re train­ing the next gen­er­a­tion to deal with dig­i­tal. This is the con­ver­sa­tion that resulted.

Strat­egy in Hir­ing: Hire for Curios­ity and Diligence

Strat­egy fails because of a lack of focused curios­ity and dili­gence in find­ing answers. I straight-up tell stu­dents that they don’t deserve to be sit­ting in my class­room if they’re not both curi­ous and dili­gent. If they develop meth­ods for unrav­el­ing the prob­lem (not a solu­tion, but the prob­lem), they will make fewer assump­tions than peo­ple more expe­ri­enced than they are. The weak­ness will become an advan­tage in clarity.

In a com­pany, you have what I don’t have as a teacher: the abil­ity to choose your staff. So look for sto­ries, port­fo­lios and past work that seems smart and looks a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than what every­one else is doing.

And when you get them on staff, encour­age them to think out­side the box by first under­stand­ing the box really, really well. The clever­est, most effec­tive strate­gic ideas are found by under­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter than any­one else.

Strat­egy in Debrief/Reviews: Ask­ing “Why?”

Usu­ally, we focus on the fact that we saw suc­cess or fail­ure and then claim to have expe­ri­ence. But to stop there is to limit the under­stand­ing we gain from expe­ri­ence. But if we ana­lyze suc­cesses and fail­ures, look­ing closely at why, we build the very under­stand­ing that gives value to expe­ri­ence. On the other hand, peo­ple will remain incom­pe­tent strate­gists sim­ply because they assumed the wrong things about the expe­ri­ences they’ve had.

In a com­pany, you often have project debriefs, which is a per­fect time to not only ask “How can we improve,” but also “why?” For exam­ple, a 5’11″ bas­ket­ball player might want to improve his crossover, but if some­one said “You should improve your post-up game,” he should prob­a­bly ask “why?”

To make this much more effec­tive, also have every­one show up to the meet­ing with their own assump­tions. Ask them to have them writ­ten, so they’re not just wing­ing it. And chal­lenge them to dig deeper each time.

Strat­egy in Guid­ance: Make them Say it Straight

Too often, stu­dents want to hide their assump­tions at the begin­ning of the research. They want to reduce risk. Unfor­tu­nately, this hides errors in think­ing and makes them risk-averse and scared. So I force them to make deci­sions, which gives them expe­ri­ence fast. In the class­room, that means ask­ing them to make bold state­ments about what they found in the research. I then read through their stuff and find con­tra­dic­tions that make them strengthen their research/story.

In a com­pany, you can do the same thing. Expe­ri­ence can start with ask­ing them to make deci­sions and judg­ments about things. It will both build their con­fi­dence and help them see where their judg­ments are fail­ing them. Ask them to keep a work­ing hypoth­e­sis of what they’re find­ing to be true. If they state their assump­tions, they can also exam­ine them.

And when they ask you a ques­tion, ask them to come with an edu­cated guess at what the answer might be. If they say “I don’t know,” maybe don’t let them off the hook so easily.

This is how strat­egy looks in the class­room, and in busi­ness. Not such a big dif­fer­ence. You hire smart, you guide them through a review of a com­pleted project and you make lots of room for them to make judg­ments. Pretty soon, you’ll have more strate­gic account­abil­ity and a cul­ture that’s able to make the smart moves, even if every­one else in your indus­try is still fol­low­ing old, tired best practices.

Lack of Strategic Clarity Leads to Missed Opportunities

Missed oppor­tu­ni­ties usu­ally aren’t missed sim­ply because we can’t take advan­tage of them. In fact, it’s usu­ally a knowl­edge prob­lem, not an abil­ity problem.

Prob­lem 1: Peo­ple Don’t Know How to Clar­ify an Opportunity

Usu­ally, you find lead­ers tak­ing a stab at a solu­tion, rather than really try­ing to under­stand an oppor­tu­nity, ask­ing the hard ques­tions about it.

Clar­i­fy­ing ques­tion can seem rude. Blunt­ness and the abil­ity to ques­tion people’s words both lead to clar­ity, but peo­ple don’t like that.

They don’t know how to ask why to make sure they know how it fits their com­pany goals. In fact, some­times they’re not even clear about their own com­pany goals, cre­at­ing a sec­ond set of mov­ing parts to con­tend with.

And if you don’t under­stand the oppor­tu­nity, and you can’t clar­ify, you’ll prob­a­bly let it pass you by.

Prob­lem 2: Can’t Ask Strate­gi­cally Rel­e­vant Questions

The habit of default­ing to best prac­tices will keep you from approach­ing an oppor­tu­nity in the most direct way pos­si­ble. You won’t be able to adapt to a prob­lem unless its within what you already under­stand how to do. And when you have a ham­mer, everything’s a nail.

Maybe you’re an MBA, but lack curios­ity (a car­di­nal sin in strate­gic think­ing). You know how to write some­thing that looks like a SWOT, but it doesn’t end up being a tool that helps you do any real busi­ness math. Think: vague strengths, inabil­ity to use it as a pro­cess­ing tool for ideas, a lack of curiosity/energy that results in you quit­ting after 1 or 2 ver­sions of the SWOT.

Prob­lem 3: Can’t Get Rel­e­vant Answers

Too often, we lean on old research meth­ods or we’re using research for the wrong rea­sons (as a crutch):

We lean on old meth­ods, like ROI, which give us backward-looking info. Or maybe we’re used to doing quan­ti­ta­tive research, but we have a ques­tion that can only be answered qualitatively.

We’re using research to pro­tect us from blame instead of help­ing us take full advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ties in front of us.

Prob­lem 4: Fail­ure to Decide

This is fail­ure in lead­er­ship. It’s prob­a­bly a lack of expe­ri­ence in mak­ing deci­sions. The leader is wait­ing for proof in order to be able to make a deci­sion. This leads to business-as-usual. And you can hire all the fresh-thinking tal­ent you want, but if the lead­er­ship is afraid of mak­ing deci­sions, none of that fresh think­ing will turn into success.

Steps to Take

Get Clar­ity: Cre­ate an over­sim­pli­fied view of the oppor­tu­nity, just so you can play with the idea. Now you have clear bound­aries, and you can get curi­ous about details from there.

Now that you have clar­ity, come up with some strate­gi­cally rel­e­vant ques­tions that you can then go and research.

Ask “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could find out” ques­tions before you start research. This way, you’ll be let­ting the oppor­tu­nity deter­mine the lines of ques­tion­ing, rather than let­ting your default research method define it. In other words, you’ll find out what’s impor­tant, rather than what’s eas­i­est to measure.

The last prob­lem, fail­ure to decide, just requires tak­ing some changes, being curi­ous and under­stand­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties in front of you. Then you have to build your bold­ness by putting your money where your mouth is. Then, you’ll be build­ing up the men­tal mus­cles nec­es­sary to make quicker, smarter deci­sions and become a leader peo­ple can follow.


Miss­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties frus­trates and dis­cour­ages us, but improv­ing in these areas can help you get a fresh perspective.

If you’re seri­ous about get­ting bet­ter in these areas, don’t stop here. Write down some action items with dead­lines and see if you have the heart for this kind of work.

Why Strategists Enjoy Fighting Goliaths

This photo, “Netherlands-4416 - Goliath” is copyright (c) Dennis Jarvis and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

This photo, “Netherlands-4416 — Goliath” is copy­right © Den­nis Jarvis and made avail­able under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

I’m work­ing on David-and-Goliath sce­nario: com­mer­cial­iz­ing a prod­uct to com­pete with a well-funded indus­try leader. This big indus­try player also enjoys the ben­e­fits of a pow­er­ful board of direc­tors and a high-quality offer­ing. To sum­ma­rize: I’m impressed.

I’m also excited.

A few things about com­pe­ti­tion: if you pay atten­tion to them, they can tell you a lot.

  • What are their habits? If they’ve been in busi­ness for a long time, they’re prob­a­bly pretty pre­dictable and are likely to repeat the same tac­tics. That’s great for you. For exam­ple, do they solve prob­lems with a stan­dard process (usu­ally involv­ing throw­ing money at it), or do they think through big prob­lems to get to victory?
  • How much suc­cess have they had? Suc­cess breeds blind­ness (par­tic­u­larly to threats) and over­con­fi­dence. If you can pre­dict what they’ll do, you can cre­ate a plan that antic­i­pates their moves—like chess.
  • How much money is there in the indus­try for that kind of prod­uct? Are they at capac­ity? Are they get­ting a lot of funding?
  • Who are they mar­ket­ing to? If you can fig­ure this out, you can start to ask why cus­tomers choose them. If you can find that out, you can usu­ally iden­tify a part of that tar­get audi­ence that you can serve bet­ter than they can.
  • How do they han­dle adver­sity? In other words, what’s their morale like (related to lead­er­ship)? What bad habits or reac­tions does adver­sity reveal?
  • How do they talk to their cus­tomers? Find­ing out how they talk to their cus­tomers gives you a huge head start on writ­ing your own SEO and sales copy, not to men­tion design and brand cues for your own product.

A good strate­gist has rea­son to respect strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion, but we cer­tainly don’t fear big­ger com­pe­ti­tion. Because resources are only rel­e­vant when you know how to allo­cate them.

I love going up against an indus­try leader, but it’s not because I know how to think. But rather, because I have a process and the dis­ci­pline nec­es­sary to ask the right ques­tions, find the answers and plug those into a strat­egy that gives my team a great chance of winning.

How to Turn a Report into a Story

You have a fact you want to present. Maybe it’s a call to action. Here’s how to make it interesting.

Get Clar­ity about What You’re Try­ing to Prove

  1. Define your call to action. Be specific.
  2. Define your audi­ence. Be specific.
  3. Ask why your audi­ence should care about your call to action. Be spe­cific and relevant.

Make a Story Out of It

In one sen­tence, say that one thing you’re offering/featuring, who it’s for and why they should want to take your call to action.

Be Spe­cific

  • It’s not a con­sul­tancy for busi­nesses who want to grow.
  • It’s a long-term plan to help busi­ness lead­ers build a lean, focused and coop­er­a­tive culture.

Your Report Becomes a Story When Every­thing You Say Backs Up Your Call to Action

So take this claim and sim­ply prove it with research and good argu­ments, test­ing every sec­tion of your report to see how it sup­ports your main point.

Remem­ber that every sec­tion header and para­graph start should make it clear why the reader should read it. It should either show why your the­sis is true or why it mat­ters to them.

Keep “Ref­er­ence” Sep­a­rate from “Story”

Note: Sep­a­rate “ref­er­ence” from “story.” There’s a place for sta­tis­tics and ref­er­ence data, but if it doesn’t directly prove some­thing you’re try­ing to say, put it as a ref­er­ence in the mar­gins or appendix.

They’ll Read Your Report if it’s Not a Report

You could send a busy exec­u­tive two full days worth of read­ing, and they’ll read it. But you have to give them a rea­son. Write a story about busi­ness suc­cess, and you’re open­ing up a new world for them, with new pos­si­bil­i­ties. To do that, make sure that you know exactly what you’re try­ing to prove, and then make sure every­thing in your report clearly backs up your main point. Get peo­ple to read your report by turn­ing it into a story.


What’s a Research “Insight?”


Insights are use­ful truths that can change the way you do things. But what’s the dif­fer­ence between insights and plain ol’ bor­ing research data? Mainly, insights are action­able, clear, not-obvious real­iza­tions that give you some kind of advantage…if you know how to use them.

Let’s talk about mar­ginal, lin­ear changes. Henry Ford sup­pos­edly said “If I asked peo­ple what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’” Ford knew that peo­ple only knew how to ask for changes in degrees, but they can’t know how to ask for a revolution.

Ford was right on the money. He, like Steve Jobs, knew what peo­ple needed, because he was cre­at­ing some­thing that met one of their basic needs. But what if you don’t know how to gather that insight, and you’re stuck mak­ing lin­ear, mar­ginal changes in price, ser­vice and qual­ity? In this post, we’ll talk a bit about what insights are, and a lit­tle bit about what they do.

Three Things about Insight

An insight is always an unfore­seen con­clu­sion. If all your com­peti­tors know it, it’s not an insight.

An insight cre­ates a change in the way you do things. In other words, it never tells you to try harder or do some­thing more, instead, it inspires a change in point of view.

An insight cre­ates strate­gic advan­tage by giv­ing you a mean­ing­ful under­stand­ing of the data (often qual­i­ta­tive “data”). In other words, it turns data into spe­cific mean­ing so you can act on it.

How You Get Insight

You need imag­i­na­tion to reach insight. You have to be able to con­nect things that other peo­ple can’t. And you’re doing it in a way that’s open, yet rel­e­vant: you’re open and actively lis­ten­ing, but you’re always com­ing back to the rea­son you’re doing the research in the first place.

Things that Pre­vent Insight Gathering:

  • A rush to get an insight. You have to be emo­tion­ally dis­ci­plined to slow down, or just nat­u­rally curious.
  • A lack of imag­i­na­tion. If you can’t enter­tain new pos­si­bil­i­ties or see them when they come up, you’re wast­ing your time.
  • An inabil­ity to lis­ten. If you can’t get peo­ple talk­ing about what’s impor­tant to them, good luck com­ing up with any­thing new. They’ll quickly real­ize that you only hear what you want to hear.

The Most Straight­for­ward Way to Gather an Insight

Ask open-ended ques­tions of your cus­tomer, in a one-on-one set­ting and try to enter their world. It’s harder than it sounds if you’ve never done it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. There are other ways, but this is the most effective.

In sum­mary, the best way to get an insight is to, first, know what you’re look­ing for. It’s a sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery that changes the way you do things in a way that cre­ates strate­gic advantage.