In his book, Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell argues that spontaneous decisions are as good as, or even better than, carefully planned and considered ones. Does this fly in the face of the role of the strategist?
Strategy, by definition is about a long term vision, a roadmap to achieve an objective beyond the immediate future. In order to develop a strategy, you need time to plan. You need to gather data that is statistically significant. This also takes time. You need to consult with a variety of subject matter experts. Again, you need time.
By contrast, Gladwell explores the idea of ‘thin slicing’, namely our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion. He also argues that having too much information can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’, and that critically, more information at best will only validate what we already knew rather than make our analysis and recommendation more accurate.
Let’s explore this idea; is there such a thing as information overload?
When we consider the role of the strategist, I believe that there is such a thing as too much information. We are not analysts. Our role is not to spend our entire day in data. Moreover, data can be manipulated to fit any number of competing agendas. Points can be and are emphasized or suppressed as necessary. Data is not the outcome. It is the series of cardinal points that inform us of our progress to our desired outcome.
But data is clearly required in planning, and planning is the foundation of strategy. If we diminish the importance of data, do we be extension diminish the need for strategy?
I would argue that this is not the case for a couple of reasons.
The first is that if we have a strategic framework in place, we don’t need a lot of data to inform our decisions. A strategic framework is a comprehensive picture of how elements interconnect to deliver an outcome. It is a way of looking at the world and an approach to problem solving. We have previously discussed this type of thing when we explored how to build a digital strategy. A strategic framework gives you the ability to quickly understand a problem, determine why it exists, and define a solution with a very limited data set.
The second reason is emotional intelligence. We have explored the importance of The Human Element in Digital Strategy. I believe this sits at the heart of our ability to make decisions quickly and accurately. When we are hired to help someone solve a problem, we sometimes overlook the fact that this person has likely been struggling with this problem for a while. They have been immersed in the minutiae of this issue and have probably figured out the keys to the solution, but either don’t recognize it or can’t articulate it. Our ability to understand, to empathize and to quickly translate their experiences into solutions is part of what makes us valuable.
What’s more, this supports one of the main advantages we bring to the table, namely our ability to work quickly. The faster we can arrive at the solution, the more valuable we are, because speed is typically not a hallmark of an in-house team.
So how do we action this approach? Start by asking the questions you need answered in order to understand the problem. Listen to the answers, and I mean really listen. Don’t even think about your next question until your client has finished talking. Apply the responses through your strategic framework, and use that to formulate a hypothesis. The hypothesis is an idea, an opinion, a solution. This is something that can be put forward quickly. Then spend your time finding just enough data to either support or refute your hypothesis.
Understand that your hypothesis is probably not going to be 100% correct. But if you are 80% right, and you implement the idea quickly, you come out further ahead than if you procrastinate and incur an opportunity cost by not doing anything while you gather more data to analyze. This idea of taking action, failing fast and moving quickly to the next iteration is at the heart of the growth hacking methodology employed by start ups, and it has been proven to drive innovation, actions and outcomes.
Using this outcome driven, speed based approach, the strategist can be a nimble and valuable team member. Yes, data is important, but too much of it is almost as bad as none at all. So use what you need and move quickly. Deploy your strategic framework. Listen and empathize with your client. And use hypothesis driven strategy to action results.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.