Strategy Is Saying No

The word “strategy” is tossed around a lot in business. What does it mean?

The worst offenders use the word as a label to gussy up some recent initiative. People say, ‘we will use this strategy or that strategy –depending on the situation.’ This is misses the mark. Strategy is saying no to particular methods or tactics in a well-reasoned manner, often differing from the norm in peculiar ways. A good strategy has a reasoned response to the proverbial punch in the mouth. If a series of tactical actions are put together in a unique order that is saying no to the usual order. That could be a strategy. A good strategy would have auto-responders to common and uncommon surprises.

Good process is good strategy. And good process extends reach of talented people.

The major role of strategy is planning for uncertainty. If you know this or that thing will work out precisely every time then you can engineer an outcome with very little error. If you have tight statistics on the outcome of a particular method you can weigh your methods against the probabilities with great confidence. However, at some point in business you must contend with uncertainty. How certain are you that this outcome will land in this range?

Yesterday I had a meeting with a manager who was asking for help to enforce the installation of a standard input form from her sales force. A tightly disciplined procedure would ensure we exceeded customer expectations further in the life cycle of the customer journey. She wants to elevate our net promotor scores and this is key objective we have of her company. This is good. She wants to exceed customer expectations in order to produce high NPS scores that lead to higher sales conversions. This is great. I applaud all of that. However, I have serious concern turning to enforcement of a proven-to-be-ineffective process… wherein salesmen always do everything the exact same way in a very complex sales/service relationship. She plainly stated it always devolves and asked me to help make it disciplined. My solution was to counter-propose a different strategy.

Rather than demanding exact precision from the sales force, let’s consider centralizing the standardization function. Rather than demand people change or “improve,” let’s place the responsibility of standardizing the data onto a clerical person who takes great pride and passion bringing order to a somewhat complicated data set. The inbound data can come in at various resolutions and velocities. Those who send in more data, in better order, will get more value to their customers, more quickly. Those who bring in less, in worse order, will have weaker outputs… potentially to the point of “not available.” However, by this procedure, we allow the salesmen to make judgement calls on who and what to press into for more, and whom to take just the minimum acceptable to obtain highly-satisfied status. We already have a system for scoring customer-fit to our value proposition and the salesmen that consistently mismanage a particularly high scoring customer-fit should be coached on that particular customer or prospect. Let’s not encumber an effective person with too much work that they do not have great talent in. We can change our process easier than changing the person. Rather than the salesmen gathering all the data in an orderly way (which seems proven to have wide-variability) and preparing and presenting in an orderly way (proven not to happen), what if, instead, the salesmen introduced the big concept and introduced the clerical person? What if, from that point, the intake of the data could be performed in a fun way that improved the customer experience? We could maybe even show up with more data than the customer provided because we could gather some on our own based on their limited input?

Strategy is saying no to good ideas, so that unique ideas can flourish. Strategy is design of inherently complex and sometimes chaotic situations. It is not enforcing precision where none can ever exist. Strategy harnesses the entropic force to produce something of value greater in sum than the sum of the parts.