Five things teaching strategy taught me about strategy

Fran Clayton
By Fran Clayton | 6 August 2020

Fran Clayton is chief strategy officer at DDB Sydney.

Soon after we all went into lockdown this year, I started teaching Ad School Strategic Planning Principles, alongside my friend Ben Hourahine. I’ve taught classes and guest lectured before, but this was different; all Zoom, eight weeks, 12 students. Despite the challenges, I finished the course feeling that I’d (re)learned more than I’d taught;

1. The basics are the hardest. The problem. The insight. The creative challenge. Even after years of practice, these three things are still the toughest to do well and the most revealing. There will always be energy spent on the shiny new things in strategy, but we should be giving twice that attention to the essentials.

2. Questions are more powerful than answers. Questions seek to expose. Answers seek to conclude. When you’re the only strategist in the room and everyone turns to you looking for the answer, it’s hard to resist jumping to conclusions. Try to pause first to wonder why not? How come? What if?

3. Trying too hard will get you no-where. The harder you try to solve a problem, the harder it is to solve it. Your perspective gets narrower the closer you get to it. The big ‘aha’ usually comes after you’ve given up and walked away. Strategic puzzles need time and space to mooch around in your subconscious in search of lateral and original solutions.

4. Discovery takes courage. These days, there’s very little time or resource within agencies for primary research and discovery. There’s no shortage of secondary data, but the unintended consequence of not doing it ourselves is that we lose our connection to the real world. The good news is you don’t need a research budget; all you need is the tiny amount of courage it takes to talk to a stranger. (From 1.5 metres away.)

5. Only the very best bits stick. When you’re teaching over zoom for two hours at the end of the day, you have to make peace with the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. That’s the theory that we forget 70% of what we’ve learned within 24 hours unless it is repeatedly reinforced. It’s a good question to ask about an idea, will it be part of the 70% that needs repeating, or will it be part of the 30% that sticks?

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