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.

Build an Advertising Team from Scratch

Marketing Team Presentation

The win­ning team from fall of 2014

If you find your­self need­ing to quickly—or slowly—build a team that can com­pe­tently build and exe­cute a com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy from your busi­ness goals, I’m here to help.

How I Know

For the last few years, I’ve taught Adver­tis­ing Cam­paigns, a class that asks 25–40 stu­dents to build a strat­egy and exe­cute for a real client. The chal­lenge is tak­ing a ran­dom mix of stu­dents and help­ing them focus all they’ve learned on real client work.

What’s Dif­fer­ent for Businesses

If you’re a busi­ness owner, you prob­a­bly have most of these skills. The excep­tion would be the abil­ity to exe­cute strat­egy (cre­ative pro­duc­tion) and a really com­pe­tent strate­gist (which is like a uni­corn; most com­pa­nies just try to make a coher­ent plan).

The good news is this: there are plenty of con­trac­tors who can execute.

The other good news: my stu­dents are great, but they don’t have the expe­ri­ence. Your staff might be able to cre­ate some­thing more pol­ished and pro­fes­sional than my stu­dents can. (On the other hand, after a year, my stu­dents will be kick­ing @$$; just sayin’).

The Jobs

Let me first say that, if you’re not hir­ing well, you cre­ate the need for micro­man­age­ment. You don’t want that. Get the right peo­ple. Here’s a guide.

Adver­tis­ing Job Descriptions

AKA: Account Exec­u­tive (account manager)

Cares about: What the client/company wants and thinks.

Func­tions: Con­nect with client (sales skills). Project man­age­ment (stay out of tasks).

Team spirit and good functioning.

Tools: Soft skills, good focus on client goals, project coor­di­na­tion and busi­ness knowledge.


AKA: account plan­ner, brand strategist

Cares about: Con­nect­ing client with the customer.

Func­tions: Research, sys­tem­atiz­ing infor­ma­tion from research, form­ing ques­tions and telling an inter­est­ing, focused story to cre­atives, giv­ing them a clear prob­lem to solve.

Tools: Mind maps (to sup­port lat­eral think­ing), curios­ity, deep under­stand­ing of the brand and the cus­tomer, good judg­ment, and the cre­ative brief (to sup­port lin­ear thinking).

Media Plan­ner

Cares about: Bring­ing the strat­egy to life through media choices.

Func­tions: Under­stands how to bring strat­egy to life in media.

Tools: Bud­get (spread­sheet), sched­ule (cal­en­dar), mea­sure­ment of effec­tive­ness and an under­stand­ing of avail­able media.

Con­cep­tual Creatives

Note: Cre­atives fall into two cat­e­gories. It’s best not to get them con­fused. Con­cep­tual cre­atives think up new ideas and con­cepts. They’re gen­er­ally more strate­gi­cally aligned. They’re bet­ter at com­ing up with a new approach that will match up against your com­peti­tors’ claims. A fin­ish­ing cre­ative is a pol­isher and edi­tor. Don’t ask them to have a robust cre­ative process; they’re the ones mak­ing your stuff look nice, not fig­ur­ing out what it should be.

Cares about: Bring­ing the strat­egy to life through a focused story.

Func­tions: Expe­ri­enced and con­fi­dent enough in their cre­ative process to rig­or­ously explore mes­sages that will exe­cute the strategy.

Tools: Strat­egy, focus, fun, work ethic (lots of thumb­nails and head­lines), the abil­ity to tell a great story with a moti­vat­ing moral.

Fin­ish­ing Creatives

AKA: Design­ers and Wordsmiths

Cares about: Pro­duc­tion quality.

Func­tions: Mak­ing sure some­one else’s idea looks nice, is well-edited and professional.

Tools: Design pro­grams, edit­ing abil­ity (gram­mar, usage, spell-checker) and good design best-practices.

A Word about Think­ing Styles

Think of account exec­u­tives and fin­ish­ing cre­atives as peo­ple who want to get things done and look really nice. In other words, they’re peo­ple who want to do it really well. So you don’t want to hire peo­ple who have great new ideas for these posi­tions. You want peo­ple who can reli­ably exe­cute, based on expe­ri­ence. Think “best practices.”

Think of strate­gists and con­cep­tual cre­atives as peo­ple who want to do things dif­fer­ently. So you don’t want some­one who never takes risks and never fails. You want all kinds of ideas that show rich­ness of thought. Think “innovation.”

The media plan­ner is a mix.

Real­ize that the dif­fer­ences in think­ing between these two think­ing styles actu­ally builds a high level of cre­ativ­ity that also works.

Quickly Build­ing a Cre­ative Team

In the end, it’s not hard to build a team that does good work. I do it in 10 weeks with under­grads. You can too. And that’s just the invest­ment. Think about what could hap­pen after that 10 weeks is up and the team is gelled, has ideas and now has experience.