Strategy: from wish list to to-do list.

In professional services, strategy is often seen as a wish list rather than a to-do list by people inside the firm. A strong strategic brand narrative can change that.

Often, stopping doing something is as essential as starting something else – one creates the space, focus, and need for the other.

Too often, the strategic narrative received, by partners of professional service firms goes something like this. “We’d like you to build ‘new thing B‘ but only as long as you do as much of ‘old thing A‘  as last year”.

Strategic brand narrative gives leaders in professional services a powerful tool to help focus investment decisions.

Light up the runway

Branding makes strategy visible to your clients (see previous article, ‘brand = strategy made visible’) but equally as important it makes the commitment to change, captured in the strategy, feel both more tangible and more achievable to those inside the business – particularly partners.

Tangible, because the branding is making an explicit promise to the market that helps people see what they are aiming at – beyond the revenue numbers.

Achievable, because the branding should make that future feel connected to the present. An authentic stretch, even if it’s a challenging one.

A strategic brand narrative gives leaders a powerful tool to help focus investment decisions – keeping more of them on-strategy than off.

Scarcity counts in a world of plenty

A short detour into the theory of evolution (the Darwin variety) helps explain why this seemingly simple ability – making only on-strategy investment decisions – can be super-effective in driving performance and growth.

We all remember that Darwinian evolution involves adaptation and innovation (in nature, these new modifications appear randomly at first, but in businesses, innovation can, and should, of course, be more directed).

Strategy in professional services often focuses too much on the ‘modification’ part and too little on the ‘scarcity’ part.

But we often forget the other half of the equation; evolution requires both modification and scarcity to work.

Random modifications in nature don’t just get ‘selected’ because they’re new and different. Evolution happens because there is also a scarcity of resources – not enough food, shelter, etc., to go around. So a modification that improves performance means that creatures with those modifications do better (survive and have more offspring that thrive) than those that don’t.

The reason for delving into the evolution analogy is that, in my experience, strategy in professional service firms often focuses too much on the ‘modification’ part and too little on the ‘scarcity’ part. In other industry sectors, CEOs and leaders have a massive and tangible strategy lever to pull that creates ‘scarcity’: investment decisions.

Go/no-go chief?

One CEO I worked with recently crystallised this for me. The consumer energy company he led had achieved remarkable strategic success in pivoting the business towards sustainable sources of energy supply (this was a large, European, state-owned business that supplied energy to homes).

I asked him how he managed to overcome inertia in transitioning a state-owned business – with all the built-in conservatism that implies – among managers and the rest of the company.

His answer was simple – set a clear vision (through the corporate brand and strategy) and then only commit new resources to components of that vision (and by implication politely refuse funding to ‘off-brand’ proposals).

Too often in professional services the invest/don’t invest decisions aren’t so obviously ‘on’ or ‘off’ strategy.

So here was an example of corporate evolution at work: a leadership team using the brand to focus attention on the changes needed to achieve the strategy (the modifications) and using investment decisions to create competition for resources (the scarcity).

This approach is something that leaders of professional service firms can apply – but too often the invest/don’t invest decisions aren’t so obviously ‘on’ or ‘off’ strategy.

They mostly come to life in the day-to-day decisions to hire or promote person A or B rather than in big chunks of multi-million dollar decisions that an energy company CEO faces.

The numbers are often relatively trivial (in the overall scheme of things), and it’s often easy to make a plausible business case for multiple options. This, coupled with the impact that lobbying has from valuable partners who the overall leadership wants to support and motivate.

There’s a much clearer narrative vision to the strategy, which comes from the brand.

Strategic playbook

In professional services, having a strong brand narrative (purpose, positioning, proposition) that sits alongside the business strategy – casting a much bigger and sharper shadow in terms of ideas and concepts than numbers usually can – makes it easier for leaders at all levels to know what’s on strategy and what’s not.

In my experience, it also makes it easier for leaders to resist the temptation to support ‘off-strategy’ investments advocated by ‘on-strategy’ partners – because there’s a much clearer narrative vision to the strategy, which comes from the brand.

Look around at competitors who appear to have been successful in implementing transformational business strategies and more often than not, you’ll also see a strong brand strategy sitting alongside it.

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.