Homo Stratēgós: Four ideas on the (possible) future of strategy

We recently hosted another one of our Lazy Book Club sessions. This time, we covered Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari’s widely acclaimed follow up to Sapiens (which we also discussed earlier this year). But because the book is so massive, and full of so many good ideas, we had to give ourselves some constraints. So, paired with the findings from the recent Warc report on the future of strategy, we asked ourselves:

 

What can the future of humanity teach us about the future of strategy?

 

Or, if you will, an analysis on what Homo Stratēgós will look like in the near future. Big stuff, right? Alright, let’s get to it.


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#1 A more technological world needs more fictional thinkers

The first finding from the Warc report is that strategists exist to decode an increasingly complex world. We have more fragmented specialties than ever, more channels than ever, and more conversations about new tech platforms than ever. The advantage might be in becoming even better at telling and interpreting stories. According to Harari, humankind has only lasted this long because we discovered the power of language, culture and shared fictions (like religion, money, states or corporations). Without these fictions, we’d find it very hard to organise ourselves at scale – things just become too complex after a while. So to deal with complexity, technological or otherwise, we can go back to the timeless art of making sense of things, through simple stories.

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Examples of this come from everyone’s favourite love/hate term – ‘programmatic’ – or emerging fields like cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Without getting into a debate around their pros and cons, these are things that are becoming part of our vocabulary, and sooner rather than later clients ask about this stuff. Which means that if we can’t tell simple stories about how they can create opportunities – well, good luck with that.

 

#2 Our skills are just a bunch of algorithms

The second finding from the Warc report is around the debate between specialists and generalists. On the one hand, you have more channel strategists all around us; on the other hand, many argue that we need to not let go of generalist thinking in order to connect the dots.

To make sense of this, reading Harari gives us a couple of interesting insights. The first one is that our sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms. Sure, we’re probably more advanced on many levels than Facebook’s News Feed, but in terms of the core principles, everything we do is part of an elaborate system that uses complex rules (and limitations) to make sense of a given scenario.

The second insight is that, while we’re all worried that one day AI systems will become conscious and take over, Harari suggests all they need is to become intelligent enough – not conscious – to do some jobs far better than us. An example of this is the data-processing power of Google, Facebook or Amazon to understand who we are. Are those systems conscious? Unlikely. Do they have a type of intelligence that we can’t possibly compete with? You bet. Which changes the way we think about our own skills as strategists.

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This has particularly important implications for how our jobs evolve over time. From discussing with our members, we’re noticing that the job is getting more complex and involving more interconnected areas: from brand problems to business problems to specialist problems like what brand X should do on Twitter. We don’t think the world is as black and white as to say that specialists or generalists will be the dominant force in strategy, but it’s interesting that it creates a new battleground for both types to compete (and probably coexist). And a new way to think about our skills, which, like algorithms, will need to find ways to evolve over time.


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#3 Be sensible about what to ignore

The third finding from the Warc report is that agency strategists expect to be able to solve bigger client problems as part of their job. On the other hand, clients seem to be reluctant to give them that much power, which creates an interesting conundrum. But the fact is that, whether you’re a specialist or a generalist, in order to go a good job you often need exposure to more than just your direct area of impact. In other words, you become a better strategist by being exposed to more areas of your clients’ business.

Harari has an interesting point about this, which he summarises as the way we acquire knowledge about the world today. His model for modern times is that knowledge comes from experiences and sensitivity. In Harari’s words, you can’t experience something without some level of sensitivity, but you can’t develop that sensitivity without having different experiences. It’s a great way of basically saying that we need to constantly open our minds to new areas beyond our own, but also to be discerning enough to know what to ignore.

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This is the difference between being able to read a lot every day and making some practical sense out of it. Our job is in the sense-making part, not just the reading part. Sure, curiosity and pushing the limits of our own knowledge helps to do this job well, but being able to translate that into a possible course of action for a given client or brief is what makes us truly invaluable.

 

#4 Teams are data-processing systems

The last finding of the Warc report is that strategists, and agencies, are expected to work faster, and more collaboratively. If speed and pace are becoming indispensable traits of how strategy is done, how do we make sense of our own routines with our team without losing substance and a true sense of direction? In other words, how do we figure out the right things to do instead of just starting to make things because it’s quicker that way? Harari offers a good metaphor for this: like big societal structures, we just need to think of our team as a data-processing system.

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His point here is that there are fundamentally two ways of managing information: you either centralise it and provide unified direction, or you de-centralise it and let everyone influence everyone else. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it shows that we don’t have to think of ourselves as the guardians of truth about a specific brand, consumer segment or category. Instead we can think of ourselves as facilitators to keep the team going – to help the team process all that data faster. And hopefully in more interesting ways. That often means doing less PowerPoint and creating more conversations.

This is just a summary of some of the ideas we discussed on our latest Lazy Book Club. You can check the deck we used to guide our conversation below. And you can join us on the next one by becoming a member of Group Think.


If you want to come to one of our next Lazy Book Club sessions, all you have to do is become a member of Group Think and RSVP when we send out the invite.