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The Ultimate Guide to Strategic Thinking, Part 1

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“Strategic Thinking starts with the end in mind.” ― Pearl Zhu, Thinkingaire: 100 Game Changing Digital Mindsets to Compete for the Future

This is a guide meant to help you be a better strategist. And a better tactician. 

It will help you also be a better planner, be it for events, marketing, sales, or strategy itself but it is NOT a guide to strategy planning. 

Because we think those guides are rubbish. You don’t need another strategic plan gathering dust in your Google Drive.

Most event and marketing professionals know that strategy is important. It’s an essential part of our job, more so than ever in a post-pandemic world. Let’s help you create something you’ll actually use to make your next quarter and annual campaign or event successful. 


This ultimate guide will be broken up into two part series. The first series will discuss the following:

The second part of the series will discuss putting all this information into action with these topics: 

  • Why Strategic Thinking is Important

  • What are the Components of Strategic Thinking? 

  • Implementing Strategic Thinking in Action

All this information will be compiled in a nifty guide along with bonus content, the must-have characteristics of every strategic thinker.

Download the Ultimate Guide to Strategic Thinking

Many marketing and event professionals find strategy scary because it forces us to confront unknowns. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options. We fear that getting those decisions wrong will wreck our careers, events, and campaigns.

Natural strategic thinkers tend to be big-picture oriented and direction-setters. While these skills come naturally to some, they can be learned. 

As a marketing, creative, or events professional, however, we’re mostly trained to focus on the operations and tactics. How to write and time the perfect email, select the best speaker or venue, set up and engage through the best social media post, execute an accessible hybrid event, get the most ROI and lowest CPA for that PPC spend, or optimize that marketing automation sequence

With all these tactical skills in our toolkit, it’s no wonder that the natural reaction is to make the strategic thinking challenge less daunting by turning it into a problem that can be solved with tried and tested tools. 

Spreadsheets Won't Solve the Unknown

A new business problem presents itself. A new calendar year approaches. A pandemic happens.

What typically happens next?

Panic, followed by the realization, “We don’t have a strategy that works for that!”

So, we call for an offsite or retreat filled with forced networking, stuffy conference rooms, and at least one or two days of mind-numbing conversations aimed at serendipitously coming up with ideas that will change the future of the brand. Then we take those conversations—which are never deep enough—and continue to choke the awesome, innovation, and exceptional out of the ideas through hashing and rehashing to prepare a comprehensive plan for how the brand will invest in existing and new assets and capabilities in order to achieve a target. The plan is typically supported with detailed spreadsheets that project costs and revenue quite far into the future.

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By the end of the process, everyone feels a lot less scared. And exhausted. And probably not really excited, but we’ve overthought it which means we’re prepared with a solid strategic plan.

Right?

Well….probably not. We’re not saying that spending time to think through ideas is wrong, but it can quickly become counterproductive if you’ve thought the uncomfortableness out of the ideas. If you’ve done that, you’re probably on the wrong path. While it may be an excellent way to cope with fear of the unknown, fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making. 

In fact, if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good. You’re probably stuck in one or more of the traps that you’ll see discussed here. You need to be uncomfortable and apprehensive because true strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. 

💡Pro Tip: The objective isn't to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success. 

In this worldview, we accept that good strategy is not the product of hours of careful research and modeling that lead to an inevitable and almost perfect conclusion. Instead, it’s the result of the simple and rough-and-ready process of thinking through what it would take to achieve the goal and assessing whether it’s realistic to try.

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What is the Difference Between Strategic Planning and Strategic Thinking?

People tend to confuse strategic thinking with strategic planning and vice versa. While there is some stock in strategic planning, it’s different from strategic thinking, and here’s how. 

Virtually every time the word “strategy” is used, it is paired with some form of the word “plan,” as in the process of “strategic planning” or the resulting “strategic plan.” The subtle slide from strategy to planning occurs because planning is a thoroughly doable and comfortable exercise.

Strategic plans all tend to look pretty much the same with three major parts:

  1. The first is a vision or mission statement that sets out a relatively lofty and aspirational goal. 
  2. The second is a list of initiatives—such as product launches, geographic expansions, and construction projects—that the brand will carry out in pursuit of the goal. This part of the strategic plan tends to be very organized but also very long. The length of the list is generally constrained only by affordability.
  3. The third is the conversion of the initiatives into financials. In this way, the plan dovetails nicely with the annual budget. Strategic plans become the budget’s descriptive front end, often projecting five years of financials in order to appear “strategic.” 

But management typically commits only to year one; in the context of years two through five, “strategic” actually means “impressionistic.” This exercise arguably makes for more thoughtful and thorough budgets. However, it shouldn’t be confused with strategy. 

Planning typically isn’t explicit about what the brand chooses not to do and why. It doesn’t question assumptions. Its dominant logic is affordability; the plan consists of whichever initiatives fit the brand’s resources.

A common trap is mistaking planning for strategy. Even board members or advisory volunteers, who are supposed to be keeping us honest about strategy, fall into it. They are, after all, primarily current or former managers who find it safer to supervise planning than encourage strategic choice. 

Moreover, executive leadership is more often interested in the short-term goals described in plans than in the long-term goals that are the focus of strategy because that’s easier to relate to short-term cash flow and revenue goals.

Their guiding question is, “Can we meet our quarterly goals?” not, “What and why and how can the experience, event, and campaign be better to meet our customer or attendee’s wildest expectations?”

Let’s break down two foundations that strategic thinking isn’t based in:

Cost-Based Thinking

The focus on strategic planning leads seamlessly to cost-based thinking. Costs lend themselves easily for many people to plan because by and large, they are under the control of the brand. For the vast majority of costs, the brand plays the role of customer. It decides how many employees to hire, how many square feet of real estate to lease, how many machines to procure, how much advertising to air, and so on. In some cases a brand can, like any customer, decide to stop buying a particular good or service. This means even severance or shutdown costs can be under its control. 

Costs are comfortable because they can be planned for with relative precision. This is an important and useful exercise. Many brands are damaged or destroyed when they let their costs get out of control. The trouble is that planning-oriented managers tend to apply familiar, cost-side approaches to the revenue side, treating revenue planning as virtually identical to cost planning and as an equal component of the overall plan and budget. 

All too often, the result is painstaking work that involves building up revenue plans salesperson by salesperson, product by product, channel by channel, and region by region. When the planned revenue doesn’t show up, managers feel confused and even frustrated. “What more could we have done?” they wonder. “We spent thousands upon thousands of hours planning.”

Why Cost-Based Thinking Fails 

There’s a simple reason why revenue planning doesn’t have the same desired result as cost planning. For costs, the brand makes the decisions, but for revenue, customers are in charge. When you put a marketing or event campaign strategy next to a revenue plan without deliberate strategic thinking through the customer experience, it can be easy to dismiss as valuable or necessary. 

However, for your customers or prospects, that experience is always primary. They don’t care if you make revenue or meet your costs. They care about how they feel and if their problem is solved. They can decide of their own free will whether to give revenue to the brand, to its competitors, or to no one at all. Brands may fool themselves into thinking that revenue is under their control, but because it is neither knowable nor controllable, planning, budgeting, and forecasting is an impressionistic exercise.

Of course, shorter-term revenue planning is much easier for brands that have long-term contracts with customers. This is true whether you plan and execute marketing, creative, or events. 

Loyalty to the campaign or event typically directly correlates with ongoing revenue for the brand.

The bottom line, therefore, is that the predictability of costs is fundamentally different from the predictability of revenue. Planning can’t and won’t make revenue magically appear, and the effort you spend creating revenue plans is a distraction from the strategist’s much harder job: finding ways to acquire and retain customers.

Self-Referential Strategy Frameworks

This trap is perhaps the most sneaky because it can snare even event and marketing professionals who, having successfully avoided the planning and cost traps, are trying to build a real strategy. In identifying and articulating a strategy, most of us will adopt one of a number of standard frameworks. It becomes a way of asserting control without acknowledging we’re still using a crutch because we’re still scared of stepping outside our comfort zone. 

An HBR article on the pitfalls of strategic planning talks about how Henry Mintzberg in 1978 brought the insight that was simple but powerful. He distinguished between deliberate strategy, which is intentional, and emergent strategy, which is not based on an original intention but instead consists of the brand’s responses to a variety of unanticipated events.

“Planning typically isn’t explicit about what the brand chooses not to do and why. It does not question assumptions.”

Mintzberg’s thinking was informed by his observation that we overestimate our ability to predict the future and to plan for it in a precise and technocratic way. By drawing a distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy, he encouraged us to watch carefully for changes in our environment and make course corrections in our deliberate strategy accordingly. In addition, he warned against the dangers of sticking to a fixed strategy in the face of substantial changes in the competitive environment.

All of this is sensible advice that all of us would be wise to follow. However, most of us don’t.  Instead, most use the idea that a strategy emerges as events unfold as a justification for declaring the future to be so unpredictable and volatile that it doesn’t make sense to make strategy choices until the future becomes sufficiently clear. 

Notice how comforting that interpretation is: No longer is there a need to make anxiety-ridden decisions about unknowable and uncontrollable things. The continued lie of “Don’t worry, this has a controllable outcome” persists.

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Why Self-Referential Frameworks Fail 

A little digging into the logic reveals some dangerous flaws in it. If the future is too unpredictable and volatile to make strategic choices, what would lead us to believe that it will become significantly less so? How would we recognize the point when predictability is high enough and volatility is low enough to start making choices? 

The premise is obviously untenable; there won’t be a time when anyone can be sure that the future is predictable. If there was one thing to take away from 2020, it would be realizing the constant presence of the unknown. 

Therefore, using a crutch is going to always hobble you. Sometimes there isn’t a framework to do the kind of strategic thinking that must happen to make choices. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t resources. Instead, it means searching for research in your networks, people, and customers who want to be asked the questions. 

Don’t persist in the echo chamber.

The Difference Between Strategic Planning and Thinking

All of this isn’t to say that you don’t need a plan. However, don’t fall into that trap that is where you have to jump immediately to, "You need a plan! You need a strategy!"

Nevertheless, strategic planning involves gathering data and deciding on a path that the business or project will take to achieve its goals. Strategic thinking involves everyone at all levels of the brand and action team consistently finding and contributing to aid the brand’s success.

💡Pro Tip: REmember to be proactive instead of reactive. 

ARE YOU READY TO OUTSOURCE YOUR MARKETING AND WORK WITH AN AGENCY?

What is Strategic Thinking?

Now that we’ve spent all this time defining what it isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Strategic thinking is an intentional and rational thought process that focuses on the analysis of critical factors and variables that will influence the long-term success of a brand, a team, or an individual.

At its core, strategic thinking involves planning for the future. This means preparing strategies and concepting ideas that will both cope with changing scenarios and consider the various challenges that lie ahead. 

Some call this forecasting ― we call this scenario or redundancy planning. Though we’d like to believe that things happen in a straight line, we know the future is activated by many variables (see also all 14 million+ options outlined by Dr. Strange of the MCU Endgame and that singular outcome that actually took down Thanos).

To think strategically means to see and understand the bigger picture of where a team or brand needs to go, and then take action. 

Everyone participates.

Not just the executives. Not just the event managers. Not just the marketing program manager. 

Everyone. Like asking customers, attendees, random strangers, and prospects to weigh in. Look at your ideal persona base and involve all the stakeholders. 

Here are a few key questions strategic thinkers ask themselves:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How will we get there?

Strategic thinking includes careful and deliberate anticipation of threats and vulnerabilities to guard against and opportunities to pursue. Ultimately strategic thinking and analysis lead to a clear set of goals, plans, and new ideas required to survive and thrive in a competitive, changing environment. This sort of thinking must account for economic realities, market forces, and available resources.

Strategic thinking requires research, analytical thinking, innovation, problem-solving skills, communication and leadership skills, and decisiveness.

This doesn’t mean overthinking and over preparing for your ideal version of the future. It means anticipating any version of the future and acknowledging the paths where the plan could crash and burn, but you're ready to put the fire out. 

Download the Ultimate Guide to Strategic Thinking

Bringing it all together

Practicing effective strategic thinking in your company will be a process. Nobody gets comfortable outside of their comfort zone the first time they leave it. That’s where Nifty Method can step in. We’re here to guide you to take proactive, not reactive, steps towards your company’s success. Whether you’re wanting to ask more about strategic thinking or get some help with implementing your strategies, book some time with us today to talk!