Back when I graduated, I’d never heard of a strategist. Companies recruited at Michigan for planners, consultants, and producers, but never a title as ambiguous as strategist. And while not as popular as ninja, I’ve seen it attached to just about everything: marketing strategist, client strategist, brand strategist, social media strategist.
As I’ve witnessed the title grow in popularity (now including my own title), there’s no agreement on what a strategist does. For reference, Jinal Shah had an awesome post on the digital strategist role from an agency perspective:
“My title confounds me. It didn’t until I began to view it in the context of working in a global communications and marketing agency. I think now I have a more objective view of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this role. Some of this will be very common-sensical to you and I think it is, but I felt the need to articulate it so I can understand it better.”
Unintentionally, Jinal makes a great point: even if you’re hired as a strategist, the responsibilities don’t become clear until you’re well into the job. Yes, two parties hiring for a strategist and claiming to be a strategist can be stark disagreement.
While Jinal continues on with some really interesting requirements, my personal flavor of strategist has begun to take shape. As a strategist in a consultant-setting, I wish that there was a more specific title for what I do (e.g., digital experience designers?). But it’s the best we’ve got. It’s a necessary evil that we swim in ambiguity every time some asks us what we do. And it’s unlikely that folks who work in strategy ever realize the title clarity found with UX-designers, architects, or physicians.
But this isn’t a tirade on nomenclature, but on personal development. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d want out of myself as a digital strategist. For a young strategist-to-be, what wisdom would I pass down that will separate him from the assholes liberally adopting the title? Or put into a thought experiment: suppose you’re about to start a new digital consulting company of 10 strategists. Which skills help you identify the most bad-ass strategists (besides industry expertise)?
Here’s how I’ve set the bar for myself: four crack commandments for the strategist path.
1. Idea Development
In a weird twist of irony, idea development is the most important skill for me to grow as a strategist. I rarely see it discussed as a competency, an odd reality, since nearly every good or bad engagement ends with successful ideas. Great idea development starts with discipline. Great strategists can ignore the content hose for 48 hours, reflect on what they know, and create something meaningful on the Internet (i.e., Robin Sloan’s famous stock vs. flow). They have their own process for creating ideas, familiar with all the basic tools to do it (e.g., research, brainstorms, innovation sessions). And their ideas not just boring tactics, but function like startups (As I’ve mentioned before). They can create an amazing experience that could subsist on its own, strong enough that customers would pay for it. Awesome companies incubating these skills are firms like What If, Adaptive Path, and IDEO.
2. Product Vision
Warren Buffet once said that consulting (and banking) were the two industries to never enter post-graduation. Why consulting? Life-long consultants would spend all of their time recommending ideas and never learning if they were good. It’s an absence of feedback-loops. When a final deliverable has only a few recommendations, I can’t think of a better experience that would ensure success. The best strategists have been through countless cycles of idea develop and execution, learning from their mistakes and taking it to the next client.
4. Internet Culture
There’s a reason why I’d expect a group of 25 year-olds to come up with a better digital idea than a group of middle-America CEOs. When it comes to idea development, the most creative folks can effortlessly steal from the best of the Internet. I want to call it industry knowledge, but it’s not. There’s a difference between those who spent their high school days on message boards and someone who plays catch-up by reading Techcrunch. It’s cultural knowledge. It’s your ability to look at a client problem and steal mechanics from Internet heavyweights like DeviantArt or emerging startups like Kickstarter. You see the underlying force that make things on the Internet flourish and apply them to a client problem. To use Nike+ as an example again, I can imagine that the inventors reflecting on emerging ideas like collective behavior, data visualization, and quantified self to craft the experience. Without this tacit knowledge, digital novices cannot wrap their head an idea around until they see it brought to life.