Great strategy equals great creative

How do you use strategy to inform creativity, and how do successful people get things done? Just ask Mike Hutcheson.

A quick Google search will tell you there are about 273,000,000 books on business strategy in circulation. That’s probably about 272,999,999 too many. I should also state at the outset that I believe the words ‘business’ and ‘strategy’ are interchangeable – to me business is marketing. 

I also reckon ‘strategy’ is one of the most misused terms in the business dictionary, in an age when it should be the most important. Companies often confuse strategy with ‘business planning’, but there’s a major difference. To me, strategy is about the philosophy of achieving objectives and winning whatever race you’re in, whereas planning is about the tactics of how you do it. Strategy is the outside view of the business – what does the world want and why should we do it? Tactics are about making it happen.

Years ago, I talked to my mate Maurice Trapp, former President of the New Zealand Rugby Union and coach of the Auckland team, about parallels between business and sports strategy. He said he spent less time on strategy and more on tactics. 

“Your strategies only work until the other side gets the ball,” he said. “Our objective was always to win the game. Our strategy was easy – get the best players on the field. That decision would take 10 seconds for anyone with a brain bigger than a budgie – it was the tactics that took the time. How do we get them to play together, plan their moves, get them fit, get them to eat the right things, understand the opposition tactics, practices moves, try clever switches, be on alert for opportunities and so on?” 

Two hundred years ago, military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” To me, that exemplifies the difference between strategy and tactics, and underscores where the focus should be to achieve successful business outcomes. Although the most important, strategic decisions should take a lot less time than decisions on tactics. They should be a simple expression of what you want to achieve. 

A good way to the describe decision-making hierarchy in business is to use the ‘getting to work’ analogy. 

  • Objective: Get to work.
  • Strategy: Take the bus (or the car, or walk – make a choice. That call should take about five minutes and doesn’t involve an army sitting around a table).
  • Tactics (the business plan): This is what takes time – get up, get dressed, feed the cat, eat breakfast, walk to the bus stop…

The trouble is, everyone on the team seems to want to be in on the lofty-sounding strategic planning meeting. There aren’t many volunteers for the tactics meeting to discuss all the grubby hard yards to make it happen. 

Successful people get things done quickly and decisively, and change tack if something doesn’t work. A key attribute of entrepreneurs is being comfortable with ambiguity and the notion of failing fast when things don’t go as planned. 

We need to be aware of what’s happening in the world and the markets around us – after all, most disruption comes from outside our traditional market competitors. There’s a saying: “He who lives by the sword will get shot by he who doesn’t.” It’s from the context of the outside world that we can shape our responses (the strategy) and then put actions in place to execute the strategy (the plan). 

The reason this is more important than ever is that the pace of change has accelerated, often without us noticing it. Coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020s will be the most disruptive decade in Western economies outside the World Wars and the Spanish flu. 

Mike Hutcheson.

In recent times, business owners have been having some real challenges. Revenue has been flat and costs are on the rise. Every year, they’ve been reviewing ‘strategy’ – including doing sales/revenue plans and cash-flow forecasts – yet never seem to hit their targets. The market has been beating them up. 

The notion of ‘Covid cloud cover’ has become a buzzword. But sometimes it’s used as an excuse for ineffective business practices – an excuse for inevitable failure if a business was in a decline anyway. That’s all the more reason to focus on strategy, but those very people whose skills put them at the top of the corporate totem pole are often the least likely to have the over-the-horizon radar that will enable visionary strategies. This is where
I put in a plea for all CEOs to be marketers. I’m a great fan of Dr Peter Drucker, who said that marketing isn’t a function within the business, it is the business. 

Churches don’t have Religion departments, religion is the church. Yet all too often, in business and in politics, strategic decisions are made by bureaucrats and accountants – people who are trained to deal with past and present, not the future. The future is by definition imaginary, so how can we expect people without imagination to imagine it? 

The bookkeeping function of accountancy is now done better by computer software, which means the profession has to focus on creativity and advisory work to remain relevant. This creates a paradox, because accountancy training is about looking backwards, recording and analysing history. Accountants are good at telling us where we’ve been, but aren’t trained to look over the horizon, to imagine the future and advise where we should be going. You can’t chart your course by your wake.

Founder of magazines including Time and Life Henry Luce said, “It’s easier to teach a poet how to read a balance sheet than it is to teach an accountant to write.” Speaking of poetry, three of the best example of strategic thinking I’ve ever known are expressed in poetic vernacular. 

Some years ago in an interview, the incoming CEO of Harley-Davidson was asked about his vision for the company. He replied there was a Harvard Business School mission statement in the entry of the company HQ
that included hygiene factors like engineering excellence and customer satisfaction, but in his view, the real future of Harley-Davidson was to allow 49-year-old accountants to dress up in leather and ride through small towns scaring people. There was a man who knew his customers and how to reach them. 

When facing the imminent threat of Nazi invasion, Winston Churchill didn’t describe the tactical strength of seaward defences, the power of the navy, army and air force as a demonstration of the resistance Hitler would face. Instead, he made one of the great rallying cries of all time: “… we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” Now there are the bones of a strategy! 

Simpler still was Martin Luther King’s vision. He didn’t say, “I have a very well-researched race relations policy for America” – he said, “I have a dream.” Good strategies are clear visions that others can follow. 

Those examples would have made superb creative briefs – and that’s how you use strategy to inform creativity.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

About Mike Hutcheson

Formerly an Executive Director at Saatchi & Saatchi, Mike Hutcheson is now an Executive Director at ICG and Adjunct Professor at AUT.

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