A good strategy needs an organising idea

What’s the big idea?

The Economist Newspaper has had the same strategic narrative since its inception in 1843 as a publication created to campaign against the British Corn Laws. The then editor and founder, James Wilson, set up The Economist with a strategy to, “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

What a wonderfully clear and passionate concept. With the benefit of nearly 180 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see that this 19-word phrase captures a powerful organising idea that has guided the strategy of The Economist’s many editors, journalists and even owners ever since.

Wilson achieved his immediate purpose, when the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, but rather than quit whilst ahead, The Economist morphed into a wider political as well as economic publication, with a strong free-trade agenda – but stayed true to its original organising idea.

The story is quaint and interesting in its own right, but the reason for mentioning it in 2021 is that today’s leaders of knowledge-led businesses of all kinds can learn from it when it comes to developing the narrative of their own business strategy.

It’s possible to imagine how having such a clear and powerful organising idea framing an organisation’s strategy makes it much easier to lead.

Engaging with the strategy requires no ability to read a balance sheet. Everyone inside and outside of the organisation quickly has a sense of its priorities and where it believes it can win. It helps new employees quickly engage with the organisational culture and values. Everything a strategy document is meant to achieve, but often falls short of.

At 19 words, it’s arguably a little verbose for today’s attention spans, but nevertheless, we can see its quality reflected in some of the more recent and successful strategic organising ideas of major companies and institutions.

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

Mind the gap

A good strategy needs a big organising 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 your service/product] firm in the world”.

Fine in terms of general direction, but unlikely to inspire specific changes in behaviour and focus.

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?”

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

Big, simple, different, true

Organising 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 organising 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 strategic organising 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 share your ideas with the decision-makers; 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.

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, bringing deep expertise and experience in strategic branding to the unique challenges of the global professional services market.