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Improvisation is Fake Strategy

Article by
Kari O'Neill
Vice President, Strategy
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image? Kari 1
Kari O'Neill, Director of Consumer Insights and Analytics

The 2020 CMO Survey reports that almost 70% of marketers relied on “improvisation to generate new strategies” from Mar-May 2020.

Reactions to that admission might be empathetic. No one was 100% prepared to handle a pandemic.

But this statistic isn’t about preparedness. It reveals marketers’ deep addiction to making quick-turn, “good-enough” decisions and their unadmitted devaluation of strategy.

This mindset has been here long before the pandemic magnified it. 96% of leaders claim that they don’t have time for strategic thinking anymore, which is why it’s become easy – even a habit – to improvise strategies both in the short- and long-term.

Buzz words like iteration, agile, accelerators, productivity, optimize, hustle, pivot, sprints are embedded in business culture - making people feel safer to completely forego critical strategic thinking in order to “fail fast”. Believing that they can A/B test or iterate their way out of it, making incremental changes until the right solution manifests itself to them.

However, sacrificing strategic thinking to get into market faster isn’t necessarily smart for business. Harvard Business Review reports that companies who were disciplined enough to strategically plan and pause at key moments averaged 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a 3 year period. McKinsey & Company also finds their clients who prioritize strategic thinking achieve their objectives more quickly because the organization is better aligned and focused, using less energy to solve hiccups in execution.

Ironically adding fuel to the improvisation addiction is a misconception that brands that prioritize strategic thinking aren’t nimble when it comes to execution.

This is just an alibi for people improvising. Because in fact, it’s just the opposite.

Jim Collins notes in Good to Great that brands that moved from Good to Great used strategy as a “mechanism for stimulating disciplined thought”, prompting the right group of people to ask the right questions, prioritizing the right goals, building deeper insights together and aligning on a clearer, organizational focus on what impacts decision-making.

When there is a lack of strategic thinking, teams unfortunately fall into a trap of not having any sense of why tactics didn’t work. Was it the wrong audience? Wrong creative? Wrong message? Wrong partner? There’s no clear answer without line of sight into how those choices were made and judgement of what you expected to happen in the first place.

So when it comes time to make real-time decisions, strategic-thinking teams have a holistic context of what’s important and what’s not, allowing them to make smarter, faster decisions on updating a tactic or series of executions to improve results.

Therein lies the beauty of strategy – the ability to bypass an endless amount of iterative, mind-numbing baby steps and to instead step-up and make meaningful changes when needed. Relying on improvisation and solely iteration to “find” the answer is just fake strategy, inevitably spiraling into an endless cycle of changes and limited results.

Kari O'Neill, Vice President, Strategy at Y&L

Kari spent her early career helping brands like Crest and Oral B understand how visual and verbal communication affects decision-making. Now at Y&L, Kari distills actionable insights and consumer motivations to formulate sound brand strategies for all brands across Y&L's client roster.