dentsu India Team

thought leadership

The Column was originally published in WARC.

Strategy will stagnate when businesses only chase the present, and dentsu’s Narayan Devanathan tells WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das why it is more important instead to visualise the finish line, and identify and get past multiple milestones along the journey. 

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report. 

WARC: Before we talk about strategy, please tell us what inspires you so that we may understand your views better. 

Narayan Devanathan: The first is my long-standing love affair with long-distance running. “In the long run,” I like to say, “things work out.” 

Strategy is charting the course for making things work out in the long run, starting with figuring out where the finish line is and then working backwards to see how you’ll get there and what it will take. 

I also like to use Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as an analogical source. From knowing precisely which edition of Whitaker’s Almanack to consult to crack a secret code and having the ability to identify which part of London someone had been in by knowing the types of soil in various parts of the city, to being able to identify a dog’s silence in the night as the curious incident or not caring about his ignorance regarding the earth orbiting the sun, Holmes was, if anything, an inveterate dot collector. 

“It is a capital mistake to theorise without data,” he said. And so he assiduously went about collecting data of all kinds and, from an outsider’s perspective, arriving at the destination before anyone else, and then using all the data at his disposal to map out the path from where he was to the destination. 

How would you define “stagnant strategy”? Do you think this has exacerbated in recent years? 

The future, as they say, is not what it used to be. In fact, business no longer seems to be interested in new frontiers, or creating the future, or even getting to the future. An obsession with speed has meant that we’re all in a race to get only to the present faster.

An entire generation of tech enterprises has been built on a single technological platform – location mapping. From Uber to Airbnb to every delivery app ever built, we’ve only created faster and more efficient ways to get to the present. Other technologies – take search as an example – only help to retrieve information more efficiently and faster, spawning another plethora of startups, sometimes combining search and location technologies.

But when was the last time something truly breakthrough has resulted from businesses creating the future or getting to the future? The internet, perhaps. Breakthroughs in internet technology have been aimed only at making the internet faster, cheaper, more ubiquitous. We haven’t seen the equivalent of a light bulb or a horseless carriage in decades now.

And when businesses are only chasing the present, strategy is likely to be stagnant at best and insipid or worse for chasing process and output as destinations. 

A glut of easy capital flowing into a scarcely credible business model that relegates profitability to the back bench (or worse, outside the classroom) means that neither the VCs with the hand on the faucet nor the eager beavers drinking at the fountain of uninspiring ideas are capable of truly imagining, forget inventing, the future. Flush with someone else’s money, these unenterprising entrepreneurs show no interest in understanding people and engaging in the genteel art of persuasion. Why bother with that when they can pump unlimited dollars through the firehose of the acquisition engine? 

The upshot of this in the strategist/planner community is that we have become stagnant too, with our commitment to and creation of strategy. CMOs with their 18-month tenures seem to have no desire in creating their own futures, forget their brands’ futures. Wringing our hands, we Google Map our way to KPIs up and down the dodo-esque funnel. And we tell ourselves that where we get to is where we want to go anyway because the CMO is getting off at this stop too. 

It’s the Inspector Lestrade way of trying to solve a crime, stumbling and bumbling from one thing to the next, hoping to get “there” eventually, even if “there” is not where you want to get to. 

Do strategists use the framework as a crutch? When should one follow the framework versus break away from it? 

The temptation is always there to use frameworks as crutches. Frameworks give one the comfort of familiarity and one can delude oneself into believing that knowing the process equals the ability to solve a problem. But as Watson discovers to his chagrin while trying to apply Holmes’ “observation framework” in many a situation, knowing a technique alone is not enough. 

“The ideal reasoner,” Holmes once remarked, “would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it.”

Knowing that data precedes a problem is not sufficient to put it in a framework and find a strategic solution. To have the intelligence to connect the dots leading up to the problem appropriately and to have the imagination to conceive of the dots leading up to the solution are both critical. 

I know that having adequate bone strength is necessary to build endurance for long-distance running. I might know that a personalised pacing approach is needed to achieve a personal best in my next marathon. But neither the knowledge about my skeleton nor the awareness of a pacing approach will do me any good until I understand the racecourse and conditions, get to the starting line and start putting one step in front of another. Even so, the thing that will get me across the finish line will not be my physical strength and ability alone. In the long run, being able to visualise the next mile, and a few miles ahead of it, and a few miles before the finish line, and having the mental strength and motivation to keep myself going the distance will make all the difference. 

In the same way, strategy is not a framework. It’s the ability to visualise the finish line and what it will take to identify and get past multiple milestones along the journey. The framework is just the skeleton. Add the muscles and technique. Add the knowledge of the course and conditions. Add the vagaries of the human psyche and then visualise how to get to the finish line. 

So when should you use the framework? As much as possible. When should you rely solely on it. Never ever.

What should strategists spend less and more time doing to get to breakthrough thinking and work? 

Spend more time connecting dots, especially unfamiliar ones. Spend less time playing with limited dots.

Spend more time asking the right questions. Spend less time attempting and iterating a thousand answers.

Spend more time challenging assumptions. Spend more time dissecting the obvious. 

Spend less time only at the edges. Spend more time in becoming more interesting. Spend less time in only being more interested. 

Spend more time in understanding. Spend less time in solving. 

Spend more time marinating dots. Spend less time jumping to conclusions. 

Our survey found strategists feel that while their clients are not encouraging brave work, their organisations are enabling them to. Any advice on how to navigate this process and any cultural barriers to be wary of? 

Spend more time figuring out what’s in it for them (customers and clients). Spend less time figuring out what you want them to do. 

Before you figure out how to create ideas that will persuade thousands, if not millions, of people, figure out how to create ideas that will persuade your clients. 

Nobody, no client, wants to be known as the cowardly client. So what will it take for them to do bold work? Can you create safe spaces for them to work with you? Or even better, can you create brave spaces for them to leap from? 

In multiple adventures, Sherlock Holmes is saddled with uncooperative, unimaginative and uppity inspectors from Scotland Yard, and yet he gets them to go along with his ways because he gives them the one thing they cannot earn on their own – credit and kudos for solving seemingly unsolvable mysteries, while Holmes himself cares two hoots about fame.

(Narayan Devanathan, Group Chief Strategic Advisor, Dentsu India)