Anyone watch the 17th episode in the second season of South Park, the TV cartoon? It’s a must-see for any strategist, whether aspiring or experienced. In it, there is a short sequence describing how a group of gnomes is running an underpants business. “Phase 1,” intones the lead gnome, “is collect underpants.” Then, “phase 3 is profit.” When asked about phase 2, silence ensues. I like to think of it as a metaphor for digital strategy.
The dot-com boom and associated proliferation of startups with nonsensical business models and flimsy value propositions may well be what inspired the South Park creative team (the episode aired in April 1998). But what is striking to me, 20 years on, is how in just 35 quick seconds, “collect underpants” displays the all-too-common hallmarks of an inadequate strategy:
- It’s vague.
- It lacks a higher purpose.
- It is not understood by staff.
- It is only descriptive.
- And, not included in the clip but based on recent personal experience of working with clients on their digital strategy, I would add: It has an inordinate focus on technology.
So, how do you build (or refresh, or simply recognize) a good digital strategy? From the likes of Simon Sinek to the academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Sloan Management Review, a lot of ink (digital or otherwise) and video content have been dedicated to answering that, and to delivering results. There are even an online quiz and a nifty buzzword generator that will help keep you honest.
To get started, I suggest you simply to take the five issues listed above, and, one by one, turn them on their head.
1. Vagueness? Go for clarity.
Make the strategy precise rather than hazy. To do this, include numbers and dates (at a minimum, use time horizons, such as short, medium and long terms). It will set expectations and mobilize the team behind the plan.
2. Purposeless? Turn up the engagement.
Make sure there is a reason for employees, customers and partners to engage with the business — what Simon Sinek calls the why of an organization. Profit is not a purpose; it’s the consequence of doing a good job. And it certainly does not apply to public sector and third-sector players.
3. Incomprehensible? Sharpen your communication.
The balance to achieve here is simplicity without dumbing down. And it’s hard, as the point of equilibrium will be different for different audiences (investors, customers, staff). Donald Sull gives what I’ve found to be sound advice: Create a small set of strategic priorities, five to six is ideal, and communicate on these.
4. Descriptive? Show the choices.
The strategy should be both descriptive (This is what we do — collect underpants) and directive (This is what we don’t do). Being clear that choices have been made is essential: Even if you deal in underpants, strategy is not a laundry list. Some activities are off-strategy and should not be entertained.
5. Tech-obsessed? Focus on customer outcomes.
All too often, the outcomes of that great digital technology we’ve invested in are forgotten, in terms of benefits to users and customers. Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and check that the strategy makes a difference to them.
Covering these five issues does not guarantee an outstandingly successful digital strategy, but it undoubtedly increases the odds. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to use the “Collect underpants” clip regularly when I train or present on strategy. It’s served me well in the past 10 years, drawing a smile and chuckles from my audience, and I’ll bet it will remain relevant for at least the next 10.