108 things I wish I had understood
earlier in my career as a strategist


For Ecem, Christian and The Circuit, 020220104

  1. Saying what you actually want to say is the hardest thing in the world. You can't ever learn it completely. But it gets a little easier with practice. Years of practice.
  2. Lists are useful. And they don't have to be strictly MECE in order to be useful.
  3. In games, conversations and careers, playing to win is not the only possible strategy, and winning is not the only possible goal. Sometimes the goal of play is to keep playing.
  4. Intellectual pragmatism works. For an argument or a distinction to be useful (productive, fruitful) it is not necessary for it to be true (logically bullet-proof). In fact some very smart people have argued that the best sign (and definition) of something being "true" is not whether it is strictly logically consistent with the axioms and the evidence, but whether it "bears fruit".
  5. Words suck. Avoid them as much as possible and when impossible - use as few as you can.
  6. Stickiness of your strategy is inversely correlated with the number of words you need to express it. Only a dumbass takes more than 3 minutes to tell a story.
  7. The effort you put into zipping ideas into as few words as possible shows itself when these ideas get unzipped by other people. Well-zipped ideas grow like wildfire in people's minds, using the fiber of their own thoughts and experiences as fuel for their growth and evolution.
  8. What you are asking people to do and what you are actually making them do don't have to be the same thing. The most effective product is often a byproduct. This has implications for how we can design and affect complex human systems.
  9. For most problems worth thinking about, solution space is not uniform. Often the more wrong something is, the closer it is to being absolutely right.
  10. All rationality is post-rationalization. The only difference is the distance.
  11. The fact that you are not a creative doesn't mean that you don't have to think up ideas.
  12. The fact that you are not a business lead, doesn't mean you don't have to try and understand clients as human beings.
  13. Reading out loud what you wrote is a painful but effective way of finding out how much sense it makes.
  14. Randomness is a powerful thing. One can see any creative process as ultimately combinatorial.
  15. Best briefs are telescopes. In fact a lot of good writing is telescopic, or "telescopable". It can collapse into just a few words, or expand into a book.
  16. Originality is not just overrated, it's fictional.
  17. Work is like gas. It expands to fill as much space and time as it can. But the more of your life you allow it to occupy, the less dense and noticeable each particle of work becomes. So if you want to do good, noticeable work - condense it and create space around it.
  18. Nobody is uninteresting and nothing is boring, if you look carefully enough and long enough.
  19. Communication is not about trying to convey ideas. It's about throwing symbols into each other's minds and hoping the ripples get in resonance.
  20. Interpretations matter. Beware of the cultural, moral, intellectual and other biases that make you read things into a situation. You can’t get rid of those biases completely, but being aware of them will help.
  21. Writing letters well helps you think, feel and make friends.
  22. Embrace the relativity of feeling. Human capacity for conscious suffering is limited. Most often it's limited to the single most acute problem at a time. If you are running for your life, you usually don't feel that toothache. But in other circumstances that same toothache can drive you insane. This is also true for happiness.
  23. Strategy is lockpicking. The more different tools you have - the better your chances of success are, as long as you don't get too attached to any individual tool. Also sometimes you have to find another door. And occasionally use dynamite.
  24. If you don't understand who is paying what to whom for what, you don't understand anything. Always start by digging your client's business model.
  25. Helping clients make up their mind about what they want is not an annoyance, it's your job. If they knew exactly what they wanted they wouldn't need a strategist.
  26. The quality of communication can be judged by the quality of silence that it leaves behind.
  27. Problem solving is a spiral process.
  28. Often the best way to solve a problem is to dissolve the problem, i.e. redesign the system in such a way that the problem will disappear.
  29. Not everybody thinks the way you do. That's an advantage. For everyone.
  30. Your job is not to be right, but to be more understanding and less wrong.
  31. Your brief is only as good as the work it inspires. It’s easy to sell a strategy that “makes sense”, but doesn’t actually lead to anything of quality.
  32. Thinking is overrated, listening is underused. As much fun as pure thinking is, most of the time, simply reading the customer complaints or talking to people in the shops will tell you exactly what needs to be done.
  33. When ideas are flowing - get out of the way.
  34. KPIs are very dangerous, because when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.
  35. The easiest way to help people change their minds is helping them follow their own logic all the way through.
  36. For a team to function well, it's important to create and maintain shared latticework to hang ideas on.
  37. The difference between a bug and a feature can be a difference of perception, or a difference of context.
  38. The best ads don't look like ads.
  39. Don’t confuse the numbers you can measure with the numbers you need to measure.
  40. Good ideas leave a cultural trail. By following it backwards you can understand them better.
  41. There are two reasons effective presentations typically have as many words per page as toddler books: (1) the attention spans of the intended audiences are similar and (2) slogan thinking is structurally required by the shape of modern corporate bureaucracy and modern culture at large.
  42. There is a difference between a painkiller, a vitamin and a cure. Selling vitamins is the hardest. Selling painkillers is usually easier than selling cures. Selling diseases is the most profitable in the long run.
  43. When looking for the right articulation, always prioritize punch over precision. Precision without punch won't even register. In any case, universal precision is unattainable, as it is relative by nature. When something sounds precise to you, remember that you are not the intended audience of your message.
  44. Framing conversations is more powerful than having conversations.
  45. Silence is a commons. Silence is a necessity. Silence is a power. Use it. Speak slowly and leave space for others to think.
  46. Making sense is always done backwards. There is no shame in it.
  47. If you want to understand how good ideas work, deconstruct the ones you like. In more than one way.
  48. Before engaging in a conversation, it's good to intentionally set the kind and level of argumentation you are going to try and use. Because convincing a prickly person with gooey arguments is very hard. Unless you manage to reframe their state of mind, but that’s a whole new level.
  49. Not everything needs to be organized in a tree-like way. Semilattices often work better (even if they are harder to think about).
  50. Time can be a friend or an enemy, depending on how you use it.
  51. There is a difference between the moon and the finger pointing at the moon. The food and the menu card. The music and the notation. The slide deck and the idea.
  52. If you are lucky, people will remember one thing from your presentation. It's a good idea to be intentional about which one.
  53. "I don't know" is a plausible answer. Often the best one. And certainly not the one to be afraid of.
  54. Top quality thinking is a performance sport. One can only do a couple of hours of real thinking per day. On a good day. The rest is for refilling your think tank, rather than trying to squeeze more out of the empty one.
  55. Most people are curiously afraid most of the time, and barely holding it together. Be kind.
  56. There is a difference between effectiveness and efficiency. You can be very efficient, while making very little impact.
  57. Thinking straight is always preferable, but not always doable. Sometimes roundabout thinking is unavoidable. Be grateful for whatever path gets you there. But then once you are there, make the path as straight as possible, so that it's easier for others to follow.
  58. Sometimes you need to write in order to think. Sometimes you need to write in order to communicate. Both ways are useful, but beware of confusing them and mixing them.
  59. One of your most important jobs as a strategist is to assist the birth of good ideas. You are a midwife. You need to adapt to the needs of your patients.
  60. Ideas are born fragile. Most die in infancy. Protect them fiercely, until they are ready to be tested fiercely.
  61. People value what they pay for. Charging for your work is a way of making sure that people actually use it.
  62. Most things you really need to understand were taught to you in kindergarten, without you noticing - which is the best way.
  63. Insight is not a noun. It's a verb. It's not about what it is, it's about what it does to the creative people who receive it. A good insight may look like a fact, a story, a picture, a question, a poem or a pint of beer. If it incites ideas, if it makes creative people say: "Wow, yes! I can make something out of it", then it's an insight.
  64. We think much less than we think we think. And we feel much more than we feel we feel.
  65. Human experience is mostly focused on avoiding as much experiencing as possible. Therefore you can often learn more about people by looking at what they are trying to avoid and how they are doing it vs. looking at what they are trying to achieve.
  66. Good thinking in a few ugly bullet points is worth 100 times more than sloppy thinking in 100 well-designed slides.
  67. Inventing on principle is much easier than inventing on luck. But beware of getting too attached to just one principle or you may fall into the danger of all problems looking like nails.
  68. A good story is worth a thousand slides.
  69. Your clients and colleagues are your first "target audience". Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them wonder. Then they will buy into your thinking.
  70. Instincts and intuitions are not always right, but they always win. So if you need to build a counterintuitive argument, then build it in a way that would get your audiences' intuitions pointing in the right direction.
  71. Googling is a two level skill. Level 1 is knowing how to quickly find what you are looking for. Level 2 is knowing how to quickly find what you are not looking for, but actually need. Most people are at level 0.
  72. Meaning is not only lost in translation. It is also born in translation. Learn to speak more languages. Hindi. Latin. Sign. Music. Python.
  73. Where language ends, thought begins. That's why speaking more than one language is a massive advantage. The space between two languages offers treasures for those who are brave enough to venture there.
  74. There is a difference between the short Now and the long Now. Also the small Here and the Big Here.
  75. In thinking and in conversation, Coordinates, Horizons and Frames matter much more than the actual data points and arguments.
  76. What's happening in the world is mostly fuss and misery. One way to cope is pretending you are an anthropologist from Mars in disguise - observing, empathizing, understanding these wonderfully odd and self-defeating Earthlings.
  77. A good brief is a window. It allows you to do people-watching from a whole new angle.
  78. None of us is as dumb as all of us. Collective decision-making is most often a path to hell. Occasionally and slowly incredible decisions arise from the crowds, but this is (as of today) unreliable, especially in time-constraint situations.
  79. For numbers above 2, there is an inverse correlation between the number of authors and the quality of writing.
  80. In a finite world with multiple players who are bound to meet each other again - cooperation is the most powerful strategy.
  81. You don't necessarily have to agree with everything you say. Sometimes saying the things you don't agree with is necessary to move the conversation forward. It can also be fun and liberating.
  82. When somebody asks "why", the first thing to understand is whether they are looking for causes or intentions.
  83. When somebody asks "why" five times in a row, that is a sure sign they haven't thought through what they are looking for.
  84. The most important thing in a conversation is understanding what each participant takes for granted.
  85. There is a difference between correlation and causation. And strict causation is impossible to establish, so the best you can do is show that correlation is persistent, reliable and predictive enough for you to be able to use it.
  86. There is a difference between making a graph to explore and making a graph to impress. Things like labels, log scales and time periods can have massive effects in both use cases.
  87. Presupposing capability is a perfectly viable way of creating it. Works for colleagues, partners... and yourself. Send yourself on impossible missions and be surprised.
  88. Habits are the glue that holds people together. New behaviors are only possible if motivation, ability and trigger can outweigh a habit.
  89. Many people need to move to think. Others may need to doodle. Or walk. Or play the violin. Try things and find out what works for you. The chance that you do your best thinking in front of a screen with multiple tabs open is very low.
  90. Doubt and belief are the primary ingredients of a good thought process.
  91. A certain amount of belief is absolutely necessary for a strategy to work. Too much belief can be deadly. Same is true about doubt.
  92. Those who are lost have to accept they are lost, before they can find a way.
  93. Thoroughly conscious ignorance is a prelude to every advance in thinking.
  94. For interesting communication participants need to have a certain amount of shared reality. Not too little. But not too much either. When thinking about your message - start by mapping what you have in common with the intended audience of your message and what differences you have.
  95. Fancy words can't be trusted. Too often they are used to mask the lack of understanding or substance.
  96. In delivery, pace is everything. Slow down.
  97. If you can’t explain it to a 10 year-old, you don’t understand it.
  98. Instruction is massively helpful for learning. If you are the teacher. If you are the student, instruction is often the biggest obstacle. If you want to learn something, teach it.
  99. There is no such thing as "types of problems". Only angles for looking at them.
  100. Every idea needs a slogan if it is destined to stick.
  101. Split your time wisely between the Ivory Tower in Cambridge and the Bazaar in Istanbul. Getting immersed in the messiness of life is essential for real understanding. The easiest way of having interesting thoughts is living an interesting life.
  102. Overexplaining an idea is a sure way of suffocating it. Leave some air for your audience to imagine how it could be.
  103. It's hard to fall in love with an idea if it is presented to you completely static and naked. Dress her up and make her dance. This way everyone can imagine (in their own way) how gorgeous she would be if they could hold her close.
  104. You don't come up with ideas. You catch them in the wild and then try to keep them alive in captivity. The best ideas eventually escape back into the wild.
  105. Your muse is not your horse. But she still needs feeding. And shitting. And resting.
  106. The best thinking feels natural. Same is true about technology.
  107. There is pleasure in both finding things out and making things up. The two can feed each other, if you mix them gently.
  108. You need to carefully manage your creative metabolism. The quality of ideas you consume determines the quality of ideas you create. With a 20% discount. If you only watch other people's ads, you will only ever create ads that are 80% as good as theirs. If you only read other people's learnings, you will only ever possess diluted versions of their imperfect understanding. Now, go listen to some Arvo Pärt and read something real.

Love,
George