When we say “thinking strategically” we often seem to mean thinking managerially.
We confuse strategy with good planning. However, planning really is a question of organizing your tactics in a logical and efficient way. Strategy goes beyond planning and setting measurable goals and objectives – it means being able to imagine how your organization or your brand fits into the arena in which you’re competing: its culture, economy, politics and social life.
A great, although somewhat over-discussed example of this is Apple. Steve Jobs could think strategically because he understood what made people feel better about themselves and their social lives. This knowledge of the culture enable him to envision what the cultural and social capital that products like the iPod and iPhone came loaded with – feelings of personal liberty, celebrity and style.
He knew that a sleek device marketed to consumers as providing “a soundtrack for your life” fit with the emerging although somewhat contradictory world of counter-cultural consumerism. And the product sold like crazy.
More than that, owning an Apple product meant that you bought into some very post-industrial ideas of personal creativity, does things your way, and instant coolness. Did the device actually confer any of these properties on the users? No, certainly not. What Apple devices did was give users the sense that you were now part of the club of those creative ascetics who change the world. Strategic genius. You can hear it in the clip I have included below.
Things are changing for Apple. We are watching the corporation become an ordinary technology player since Jobs’ untimely death. Not because Tim Cook and his team are incompetent, but rather because they are having trouble creating a followup to the Jobs’ strategy, mostly because they lack his imagination and his vision. When a company’s brand is so profoundly tied to one’s person’s creative imagination and cultural understanding, it is very difficult to keep up the coolness factor after that person passes.
Why is this? Because strategy is something that is very difficult to quantify. It is very hard to put into a formula. The managerial processes needed to execute the strategy can be formalized, but the strategy is a holistic thing – the master strategist doesn’t only logic through a problem. No, logic is just a piece of the strategy puzzle. The master strategist tastes a challenge, smells a challenge, dreams of a challenge. It visceral and intuitive.
A good counter example to Apple is Porsche, which has built out their brand by resurrecting and extending their brand history and origins: racing, style and pragmatic engineering. Porsche provides the examples and the vicarious experiences through social media, but allows users to reimagine their connection to Porsche in their individual imaginations – a more sustainable strategy.
In a word, strategy is a profoundly human thing, because it depends on the strategist building a representation in the minds of consumers. This makes it challenging to teach, difficult to explain and almost impossible to reproduce by someone other than the originator of the strategy.