Inception Action

Episode 70: From Inception To Action – Getting Things Done As A Digital Strategist

It’s the most common complaint about digital strategists. We swoop in, ask some questions, dictate direction and then leave it to others to implement. All too often, it’s a fair description of how many choose to conduct themselves. But without collective ownership of the strategy, it is unlikely to ever get implemented correctly, if at all. Without implementation, we can never prove the value of our ideas. And the way to get things implemented is through the mental sleight of hand called Inception.

In this case, I’m of course referring to the 2010 Christopher Nolan movie of the same name. The concept behind the film is how a group of hackers break into their target’s brain to plant an idea so deeply in his subconscious that he believes the idea is his own. It’s based on the premise that if a person believes that they are the originator of the idea, they are deeply emotionally invested in it and are much more likely to implement it.

Why is emotional investment so important to getting things done? Think about the alternative. The subject matter experts have been working on delivering against their objectives for some time with varying levels of success. The strategist is brought in, often within a threatening context, namely that the group has not been as successful as they should be. This outsider then dictates the strategy with little input from the team members and then leaves them to implement it. What is their motivation for implementing the strategy? Frankly, very little. If they implement it and the strategist is proven right, then their capabilities and judgement are called into question for not having solved the problem previously. If they don’t implement the strategy, nothing changes, and eventually the frustrated strategist falls by the wayside. In this instance, inertia is a form of security.

Inception overcomes this problem. The role of the strategist is not to come up with the solution independently, but to help the team come up with the solution collectively. So practically, how does this work?

First, here’s how it doesn’t work. Inception is not about abdication of responsibility. Your role as a strategist is not to let everyone independently come up with the strategy; you are not a note taker in this endeavour.

Inception begins with asking the questions of the subject matter experts that will help you formulate the strategy. Coming up with the solution is your responsibility. However, and this is the key point, when you come up with the strategy, don’t simply tell everyone what it is. Rather, ask the leading questions that will help the team arrive at the same conclusion that you have earlier. Give yourself mental waypoints that inform you if that the team is on the right path. Ask simple questions whose only logical answers are steps towards the solution you envision. If anyone comes up with objections to the ideas being put forward by the team, help overcome them. Finally, when the team members arrive at the solution you want them to, roundly and loudly praise the idea. Even better, make sure to share the idea with their peers and managers, ensuring they hear the praise and clearly credit the team members with the solution. In this way they are emotionally invested in the solution and will work that much harder to implement it.

This technique relies on subtlety. Your team has to believe that this is their idea, and that only works if you are truly acting as a facilitator. It also only works if you are humble and willing to forego credit for the idea. This is often a difficult thing for a strategist to do. We naturally want to share with people that we came up with the idea since that is a core part of the value we deliver. But inception doesn’t work if we give in to these natural urges.

So if we facilitate others coming up with the idea and also forego the credit for doing so, what’s in it for us as strategists?

First, the solution is implemented to the benefit of the client, the project and the team. It’s just the right thing to do. Second, your role is secured through the overall success of the venture. Simply put, the value of your contribution is measured by the impact on the business, and the positive outcome reflects well on you. Finally, people begin making sub-conscious connections between your presence and their ability to come up with great ideas. This encourages them to include you in their projects more frequently.

Inception flies in the face of most concepts of how to show value as a strategist. But done well, it is the mechanism to move from expensive theoretical ideas and into high-value solutions with proven business impact.

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.

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