The simplicity of success.

The secret sauce of successful strategy

One of my first forays into strategy came, many years ago, as the junior member of a team. I helped pull together the analysis, facilitated many of the discussions and at the end of the process, it was my job to produce the slides for the big presentation for the Board. We wanted it to look tip-top, so I took the 74-page deck to the marketing agency we used, to smarten up the graphics and turn it into lovely spiral-bound packs.

As I sat in their design studio, wearing my suit, staring around at the rustic oak tables, industrial-chic walls, and the profusion of tattoos and piercings decorating the various T-shirted people bathing in the glow of their Apple Mac screens, the agency’s Director flicked through the pack, looked up at me and said, “Seriously?”

He held up the last slide before the weighty appendices kicked in, and pointed to the chart showing the 28 initiatives, under six headings, and repeated, “Seriously? That’s a ridiculous amount of stuff. You’re going to try and do all of this?”

Obviously, as a smartly dressed, highly intelligent young corporate strategy man, I dismissed his question and simply fronted it out. The slides were duly smartened up, bound and dispatched, the strategy was approved and for the next three years, I watched as almost half of those 28 programmes went from green, to amber, to red.

About ten years later, having left corporate life and set up my own consultancy, an ex-colleague invited me in to his business to help them accelerate their growth. He introduced me to his CEO, and as we sat in his office drinking coffee, I asked him about his strategy. He grabbed a piece of paper from the printer, folded it into quarters, put it on his desk, lifted his coffee cup off its mat, and placed it on the folded paper. Then he picked up the coffee mat and passed it over to me.

On the mat were four boxes, each containing three or four words, with a simple, circular arrow running around underneath them. “There you go,” he said, “that’s pretty much it. That’s the customer lifecycle. We only do the top two bits, but now we’re gearing up to do all four. Nobody else does it, we’re going to own the whole customer journey, and the customers are going to love it.”

Sitting in his office, looking at the mat in my hand, I think my first words were, “Seriously? That’s ridiculously simple. Where did the idea come from?”

“It was when we went out for an Italian meal,” he explained. “We talked about all the problems customers had been having, some of the things they’d said. I think you talked about Amazon, didn’t you?” He looked at the colleague who had just introduced us. “No,” replied the colleague, “that was Pete. I spoke about airplane engines, I think.”

“That’s probably right,” said the CEO, “there were a few beers, it’s hard to remember exactly, but by the end of the night we’d drawn that picture on a serviette. It’s the business we need to become.”

I worked with them on and off for the next three years. They delivered their strategy, created the industry’s first full cradle-to-grave service, and their customers did indeed love it. The last time we spoke, they’d almost doubled in size and were scaling up their systems investments yet again, so that they could offer the model as a franchise option to half a dozen of their smaller competitors.

A year into our work together, that same CEO took me out to dinner to the same restaurant where they’d drawn up their strategy. I ordered a pasta dish and reflected on an important lesson. Believe it or not, the dish had just four ingredients, and it was stunning. It took me right back to my last trip to Florence. There’s an art to creating food, that’s simple enough to taste each ingredient, but can still transport you to a far-distant country. And there’s an art to creating a strategy, that’s simple enough to execute each initiative, but can still transport you to a far more successful future.