Good strategy needs a big idea to give it the spark of life. Your brand is the best place to start.

What’s the big idea?

Listening to an interview with Lionel Barber this week was a pleasing reminder of the vital role that big ideas can play in the strategic performance of knowledge-led businesses.

Barber is the former editor of the Financial Times (2005 – 2020) who oversaw a transformational turnaround in the FT’s commercial performance and journalistic reputation during his tenure.

It’s an interesting interview to listen to for many reasons, but for me what stood out was a section on the role that, what Barber calls, “a few good phrases” played in giving energy and clarity to his vision for the FT’s turnaround strategy.

The big idea that Barber landed upon was, “to be the paper of globalisation,” which might seem a little obvious with hindsight. But as Barber describes, it gave him and his team a clear vision for what had for the previous 120 years or so been ‘Britain’s leading business newspaper’, but was facing a very uncertain future with falling circulation and a business model under threat from digital.

London was already fast transforming into being the leading financial hub of globalisation, so it made strategic sense to ride that wave. But for Barber, riding that wave meant shaking things up within the FT and projecting a new, less parochial, editorial outlook and newspaper product.

Good strategy needs a big idea to give it the spark of life.

As a leader, Barber says that this big idea was a powerful tool – “the banner under which you’re going to march”. And for the thousands of people working for the FT all around the world, “it means everyone working for you has at least an inkling of what they should be aiming for”. Something that many leaders would love to be able to impart to their teams as they embark on strategic change, especially those leading internationally and globally dispersed businesses.

Mind the gap

I would call concepts like “to be the paper of globalisation,” brand ideas, but call them vision statements, strategic themes, or just “a few good phrases”. The impact is the same.

Good strategy needs a big idea to give it the spark of life. Leaders need a big idea to help them communicate their strategy and to help shake things up. But, in my experience, strategic plans rarely come with any big ideas in the box.

Even the best strategy consulting firms seem remarkably reluctant to bring their strategic recommendations to life with any big ideas that capture the imagination.

If they do produce something called a vision statement, it’s more likely than not to be the standard, “Our vision to be the best [insert service/product] firm in the world”.

Fine in terms of general direction, but not much of a ‘banner under which to march’ and unlikely to inspire specific changes in behaviour and focus internally.

What happens in those meetings where this is discussed? “We’re currently the 37th largest provider of widgets in the tri-state area and our new company vision is ‘to be the best widget maker in the world’ – everyone comfortable with that?”

Brand ideas don’t compete with strategy; they complement it.

Big, simple, different, true

Brand ideas don’t compete with strategy; they complement it – at least they should.

There’s no inherent reason why strategy consultants couldn’t complement their analysis and recommendations with big resonant ideas to help bring them to life in the organisations they serve. But they mostly don’t – even though many of the biographical strategy books they have on their bookshelves (Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates) are littered with them.

Some of the best include: “A computer on every desk and in every home” (Microsoft), “Within arm’s reach of desire” (Coca Cola), “Organise the world’s information” (Google) and “Insanely great products” (Apple).

What these ideas have in common – that distinguishes them from traditional advertising slogans – is that they are ‘organising ideas’, that make them active within the company and give people a sense of mission and purpose that the day-to-day strategic themes often lack.

One way to think about it is that is a good brand idea should be ‘big, simple, different and true’:

  • Big = ambitious, exciting, aspirational, meaningful.
  • Simple = concise, clear, unambiguous, easily understood (and translatable when that’s important).
  • Different = a differentiator, not a qualifier, distinctive, compelling, charismatic.
  • True = authentic, resonant, achievable, real.

Many people are deeply analytic; many are intensely creative, few are even averagely ok at both.

Dramatic tension

One of the challenges in developing brand ideas is the tension between the competing needs for almost trivial brevity and profound meaning for the business.

It’s an odd skill set, requiring an unusual combination of what is often (probably erroneously) called ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’ skills.

It’s not the depth of talent in either that matters very much at all – it’s the relative scarcity of the combination. Many people are deeply analytic; many are intensely creative, few are even averagely ok at both.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work up close with a few of these people – mostly on the consulting side of the fence but often also in charismatic leaders of client companies.

Half the battle is listening skills – to come up with something that resonates powerfully with both the organisation’s strategic imperatives and the leadership’s collective personality. The other half is the often laborious and sometimes frustrating process of sifting and sifting through the millions of grains of sand until you stumble upon a few tiny specs of gold.

Some prefer to do that in front of a screen, my former mentor and colleague the late Wally Olins often professed to have his best ideas walking his dog, and others still find that once they’ve tuned in to the problem they can often get a flash of inspiration at the most unlikely of times.

Then the third half of the battle, to torture the metaphor, is developing the influencing skills to both share your ideas with the decision-making clients; persuading at the same time as listening to see if it’s resonating as you hoped, or whether there’s a better version still to be discovered.

Alternatively, be the company’s founder and dominant shareholder, in which case you can simply tell everyone what the big idea is.