The Four Brains of a Strategist. Which One Do you Use Most?

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I recently created a little Facebook app called “What Type of Strategist are you?” Apparently, this is a question that strategists really do want answered- as they’ve viewed the app seven thousand times in the last five weeks (8000 actually as of 2.28.16)! It was also interesting to notice that most people who took the quiz seemed to really identify with the results, as you never know how these little experiments will work out!

Since many marketers who took the quiz have asked me about the reasoning behind the quiz, I’ve decided to provide some background. I came across this “model” a few years back, when I was at Leo Burnett. It was the brain child of Carol Foley, research guru extraordinaire at the agency. I don’t remember the context of her presentation and all the content she shared that day, but the core elements of this framework stuck with me. They make so much intuitive sense.

In Carol’s model (and I am paraphrasing here based on memory) she differentiated “strategic thinking” based on two core discriminating dimensions:

  1. Rational versus emotional: Are you a rational thinker that rigorously analyzes all the available data? Or perhaps you’re a more emotional thinker, a person that relies on gut instincts when going through the data.
  2. Spontaneous versus Planned: The second dimension differentiates between a more deliberate, thoughtful (and time consuming) style where you consider all aspects of an argument before coming to a conclusion. Alternatively, maybe your style is more spontaneous, fast and inspired.

Segmenting strategic thinking along these two dimensions leads to 4 different “strategic styles or brains” captured in the quiz:

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The creative strategist: You’re the creative among the strategists; you use facts and data, preferably cultural data as a starting point for inspiring ideas and big thinking- and you pride yourself on being able to communicate them well. You focus on what could be.

The empathetic strategist: Your approach to strategy is emotional first. You use data to gain a deeper understanding, to get a sense (almost a feel) for what drives people and why people do the things they do. For you empathy is almost more important than reason. You focus on the underlying drivers and emotions.

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The conceptual master: You quickly perceive the inherent relationship between disparate facts and are good at creating “models” that simplify and explain the complex while providing direction on how to solve the problem. You thrive on making abstract ideas feel concrete. You think in concepts.

The rational thinker: You seek factual knowledge, analyze all available data, analyze the pros and cons of each argument and consider all sides of a problem meticulously before coming to a reasoned conclusion and recommendation. You think in data.

All four styles are useful and valuable but I’ve noticed that people generally seem to have preferences. “The creative strategist” in particular seemed particularly aspirational even though the segmentation is not based on the quality of the outcome but rather on the thinking and processing style. In other words any of these styles can lead to cool, innovative solutions and insights.

Experience also shows that most people tend to gravitate towards one of these 4 styles based on their training, experience, successes and affinity. To generalize one could say that the rational thinkers are often found in corporate strategy jobs, the conceptual master in consulting firms, the creative strategists in advertising agencies (thanks Crispin & Porter for starting the trend towards cultural strategy) and the empathetic strategist in qualitative research firms and some advertising agencies.

Personally though, I believe that strategists should have the mental flexibility to move fluidly between those four thinking styles when analyzing a problem and looking for insights or for a solution. At First-The-Trousers, for example, we’ve helped clients identify new growth opportunities and product ideas by using our “conceptual master” skills. We’ve also helped corporations develop global positioning platforms using our “creative strategist” brains. We’ve used our “rational thinker” skills to help a client identify the most compelling message at point if sale and we’ve used our “empathetic strategist” skills to help an agency win new business and help its client turn around its declining sales.

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In my experience, the clients’ problem, their business objectives and their own culture should influence the type of thinking you apply to a problem. Most clients we talk to are often looking for a fresh perspective on their business and new insights on how to drive brand or category growth. Understanding the dominant thinking style within that organization and purposefully applying a different one is a smart way to provide this alternative perspective and uncover new insights.

I also believe that most organizations, especially agencies, should make sure they have each type of thinker within their ranks to ensure growth, fresh insights and to avoid formulaic and expected thinking. Have you noticed that most agencies have a specific style of thinking and work? Now you know why.

But switching between those thinking styles isn’t easy to do. Most companies use frameworks or creative briefs that tend to prescribe the type of desired thinking, ultimately leading to formulaic (or at least predictable) solutions. That’s why I’ve never really been a big fan of creative brief templates. And that’s where a tool like Positioning-Roulette can come in handy. Since it identifies the 26 universal approaches to positioning development and invites a systematic exploration of these 26 solutions, it also enables the person using Positioning-Roulette to apply all 4 strategic brains to a given problem.

What type of strategic thinker are you? And do you stand out within your organization or do you share the same thinking style as your colleagues? And what do you do to switch between these various thinking styles? Let me know in the comments section below.