13 September 2007

What makes a good Strategist?

About twice a month I have someone say to me, "OK, I understand that you're obsessed with an accurate definition of Strategy and agree with you on this... but my real problem is that I can't seem to hire people who actually are any good at Strategy. How can I tell if someone is going to be a good strategist?"

When people ask this question, the answers tend to fall into two camps (both of which are, to be honest, entirely useless).

Stock Answer #1: "You should hire some with a Strategy background and/or an MBA."
Stock Answer #2: "You need to look for someone who is smart, insightful, experienced, analytical and with good communications skills."

The first answer is useless for obvious reasons.... if you're having a hard time figuring out who might be a good strategist you should probably assume that other people are as well, so assuming that being hired for a Strategy position equals skill and ability is, of course, stupid. And having an MBA is no guarantee of anything (other than the fact that they went to the trouble of getting an MBA).

The second answer is equally useless but for slightly less obvious reasons... in essence you're describing a good employee for a consulting firm. In other words... you're describing the absolute lowest common denominator for all your hires.

So what is the "right answer?"

People (as a general rule) like simple solutions and simple answers. More accurately... we like single answers. What I mean by this is that we prefer to see single causes for everything. If your foot is hurting it must be the new shoes you bought. We don't like complicated answers that involve multiple variables and elements that all interact with and are interdependent upon each other. We don't like to think that our foot might be hurting because the combination of walking on the beach barefoot for an hour and a chronic small knee instability problem strained some connective tissue which didn't start hurting until we put on new shoes that were not broken in and had high arch support.

What is my point?

It's two-fold.

First... the answer to the question is going to be unsatisfying as it is complicated and interconnected.
Second... it's the sort of answer that good strategists are good at coming up with.

Most people want a satisfying story.
We're going to introduce a new product. We believe in this product and are passionate about both it and our customers. Because of this, our customers are going to be passionate about the product. We need to communicate these passions to our customers and create this bond and then we're going to sell enormous numbers of product and become incredibly rich and successful.
That's a satisfying story.
But it's not real insight. And it's not a Strategy.

A good strategist isn't interested in a satisfying story. They're interested in meaning and in answers. More than that... they're interested in questions and anomalies.

If we're presented with a whole bunch of data we tend to look for a pattern within the data. That's human nature. We look for the way it fits together. Along the way, we tend to discard data (or at least discredit or reinterpret data) that conflicts with the emerging pattern.

People who are truly bad at Strategy start with the desired pattern and force a fit.
People who are mediocre at Strategy rush the emergence of a pattern or seize upon a potential pattern and force a fit.

Good strategists become obsessed not with the pattern - but with the anomalies.
Good strategists see these anomalies as the key clues to the truth behind the data.

This is why good strategists are always looking for more data and more time. It's why they are constantly reading, constantly watching TV... constantly seeking out input and data. The more data they have, the more likely they are to be able to understand where the anomalies are leading them.

Good strategists are incredibly curious and questioning.
They are incredibly focused while having a ridiculously wide range of interests.

Good strategists are "fast processors" who frustrate you by saying they need more time.
They often (when experienced) know the answer well before they are willing to state it (and constantly look to invalidate their assumptions).

So how do you know who is going to be a good strategist?
Have a good strategist interview them.
Sorry... it's the only way to shave the odds in your favor.


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