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 tactic. People say they will use this strategy or that strategy depending on the situation. This is close but misses the point. 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.

The major aspect of strategy is planning in the face of 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. However, at some point 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. The elevation of our net promotor scores is an objective we have of her company. She wants to exceed customer expectations to produce high NPS scores that lead to higher sales conversions. I applaud all of that. However, I have serious concern turning toward 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 passion in order. The inbound data can come in at various resolutions and velocities. Those who send more, in better order will get more out, more quickly. Those who bring in less, in worse order will have weaker outputs… potentially to the point of “not available.” By this manner, we allow the salesmen to make judgement calls on who and what to press into for more, and whom to take just the minimum from. We already have a system for scoring customer fit to our value proposition and salesmen that mismanage a particularly high scoring fit should be coached on that customer or prospect. But, the data entry order of operations would need to change. 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 in sum of the parts.