Nature vs. Nurture

by Vicki Campbell, February 2018
Nature vs Nuture: Our Readers Speak


We have been publishing these “e-conversations” for just six months now. But I am happy — no, thrilled — to see that it has already become exactly what we had hoped for: a two-way conversation with all of you.

Your frequent and thoughtful responses are very much appreciated, and I am grateful for your willingness to engage, clarify, and agree or disagree as you see fit.

And so, this month, with our sixth issue, we shift format gears a bit and use select responses to our last newsletter as the bulk of the content (yes, I am an inveterate recycler). Think of it as a virtual “expert panel.”

Special thanks to our esteemed virtual (and virtuous) contributors: Camille, Glenn, Kristen, Peggy, Randall, Allison, and Anders, who were generous and courageous enough to share their thoughts (showing up and speaking your mind is welcome here). Note that we have done some editing for clarity and space.

On the question of whether people are born with the strategy gene or, rather, it is something that can be taught, there was agreement that it is largely the former:

Camille: “It is akin to the concept of writing. Everyone can be taught to write. There are grammar rules and style guides, and anyone can learn to become a better writer. I think the same is true about strategy. But there are limits; true strategists are the ones born with the gene. It really just is how someone’s brain is wired.”

Glenn: “Certain fundamental elements or characteristics need to exist in order to become a ‘super good’ strategist. Among them, curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to pause and contemplate before acting.”

Kristen: “I do think people are either predisposed to see the patterns naturally or not. That said, I also want to believe that strategic thinking is something one can work on developing… perhaps similar to how law schools train lawyers on how to examine information in a particular way.”

Peggy: “Some may never have it. And in some, it can be cultivated.”

My view mirrors this perspective. In short, like a sense of humor, either you have it, or you don’t. Yes, you can teach a process, but some people are predisposed to see or look for “the tree on the mountain,” and some people are linear thinkers and more detail-oriented in the here and now.

It’s worth noting that while those of us who think of ourselves as strategists may sometimes think (and behave as if) strategy is a superior quality to tactics, it is not. Both need to be present to achieve desired results. Insight without well-orchestrated action is no more useful than action without purpose.

On our mutual predisposition towards emphasizing tactics at the expense of strategy:

Randall: “The operational overwhelms the strategic. But as the environment becomes more complex, the need for an overall strategy — and the related ‘sub-strategies’ — becomes more important to coordinate efforts, as well as drive potential synergies.

“What is often overlooked is that when strategies are known, then decisions can be based on the strategies and their priorities. With just tactics and operational practices, decisions both horizontally and vertically in an organization, and across regions, become chaotic and at cross-purposes.”

Allison: “Everyone gets hung up on goals vs. strategic imperatives and it all results in distraction/confusion. As a result, we are inclined to just talk tactics.

Camille: “A drug needs a trade name, and these days, many naming companies are part of holding companies. So immediately on the heels of naming comes the marketing agency, whose primary source of revenue is … tactics.”

That last point by Camille really got me thinking. As a drug moves through development, especially in small biotech, companies must engage many outside firms whose revenue models are centered on their piece alone. Fragmentation and a tactical focus are inherent in that approach, even though it provides speed and scale.

It astounds me how many marketing people outsource their brand strategy to an agency. When that occurs, you are no longer taking into account the company or the overall business goals. Again, the risk is tactics without an overarching strategy.

[Note that our “virtual panel” gave additional perspective that needs to be considered when crafting a strategy, something which we will address in future conversations — specifically, insights on the “C” word (customer).]

So, what to do?

Presuming the answer to our nature vs. nurture strategy question is the former, how can we define and implement a strategy that is differentiating, potent, and achieves the goals of the company/­brand/­team/­technology?

The answer, of course, is… (wait for it)… conversation!

Conversations that… are cross-functional and based on facts and insight. (It is often beneficial to have these facilitated, to ensure that all voices are heard.)

Conversations that… are anchored in the perspectives of the market (customers/influencers), the team, the data.

Conversations that… include input from those who know how to operationalize it. (This is where the tactical gurus make their mark.)

Conversations that… establish a forum/process where strategic thinkers can imagine the possibilities and push the group to new heights. This ensures the engagement of those that, once they “see” it, can provide innovation and clarity in the execution of the plan.

With this point of view, you can see why the old school brand strategists among us struggle with the over-templated, just-get-it-done-so-you-can-get-a-budget-to-finance-and-start-spending approach, so often used today.

Developing a strategy for the company jewels should be a sharing, learning, mind-melding experience. One that becomes “a thing” that everyone wants to contribute to and take part.

Remember that fundamentally, a strategy is a story about a journey! It should be told with energy, vision, and just enough detail so the audience can see it, imagine it, and feel the urge to participate. Your leaders should be able to tell the highlights of the story in a two-page narrative (Word not PPT) or a ten-minute TED TALK-esque style. If that is not happening, your approach needs more work.

And finally, I’m going to give the last word to Anders: “Do not forget about having your strategy in place, before you start running!!”