This is the first in a haphazard series which takes various management phrases and tries to ground them in reality. First, though, a bit about why I’m writing this.
A poor choice of words can be damaging. There are numerous times I’ve received an e-mail introduction from a company, and after a couple of paragraphs of impressive-sounding buzzwordology I’ve thought to myself “Yes, but what do you actually do?” Sometimes, though, some of those words actually translate into a tangible reality, and mean something for the lives of real people — even those who don’t spend their days thumping boardroom tables.
Sometimes, also, I find myself using management jargon in front of management-types, and then repeating it in front of non-management-types, which is probably not very helpful to the dialogue. But while these words may sound empty or obtuse, they do relate to things that impact on real people’s lives, and that’s why I use them.
So if I, or someone else, has used such jargon in front of you then please don’t shut down immediately. The consequences of these words affect our working day.
Today’s word is… strategic.
I think the word strategic is more useful than the word strategy, because something can be strategic without you actually having a strategy. If a strategy is the route you want to go down, then strategic refers to the general direction you want to go in. You can know which direction you want to go in without knowing the specific route. More powerfully, you can know that something is the wrong direction to go in (not strategic) even if you don’t know the specifics of the route you should take (the strategy).
Here are two example of how strategic and non-strategic things affect our daily lives.
Example 1: Non-strategic work leads to expense and pain
This is an example where doing something that is not strategic would have meant making our business more expensive and difficult to run.
In June 2008 we launched a new-look Comment is free (Cif) on our Java platform with Pluck powering the community features. Previously is was running on Movable Type. Now let’s work backwards a bit… the site was launched in June 2008, so anyone can guess that work might have begun in, say, January. We’ll have needed to sort out some legal paperwork with Pluck, which you can imagine might have taken three months to negotiate, and before that a market survey and possible prototyping to assess the alternatives to Movable Type (let’s say two months’ work).
So in August 2007 we would have been at point where there was general acceptance that Movable Type was not the future platform for Cif, even though we didn’t have any certainty about its specific replacement. Movable Type was not strategic, even though we didn’t have a specific strategy, or at least not a very detailed one.
And at this point any significant feature development on our (now non-strategic) Movable Type would have had three kinds of cost implications:
- Its lifetime value would have been limited;
- It would have created more work for the people migrating to the new platform, because they would have had to migrate more features;
- It would have added more support costs to the Movable Type platform and hence the company.
This last one is probably most relevant to technical people, journalists and the production staff who work on Cif. Because “support costs” means not just “money” but “time and pain”. With the focus moving on to the next platform there will have been less and less expertise available to work on the limited-lifespan technology: there will have been fewer people available, and knowledge would be less fresh. Any technical work would be more time-consuming to put in place. It would also be less reliable because reliable work (rather than quick hacks) generally takes more time and more expertise; and yet this is a platform with less expertise and a known limited lifespan, so greater reliability is especially difficult.
Example 2: Strategic work gives you stuff for free
Meanwhile, what of all that so-called strategic work on the new platform? Why was that “strategic work” and not just “work”?
Because so much investment (translation: time and effort) had gone and would continue to go into the new platform there are suddenly lots of mutual benefits. Cif got lots of things for free, because they had been developed before for previous launches on the same platform. Some of the front-end features I can spot which came free include:
- The “all” page, which shows everything published today (or indeed on any particular date);
- The ability to create subsections freely, such as those for the US, religion, and things that have appeared in the papers;
- Keywording and keyword navigation;
- Contributor pages, such as those for Susan Tomes or Mark Lawson;
- Alphabetical index pages; and
- RSS feeds all over the place.
Similarly other sections have gained from Cif’s launch. When we later launched the Life & Style section I was particularly pleased to see the editor had written her introductory article on the new platform and opened up comments underneath it. Commenting was previously available only on our Movable Type blogs, but by building Cif on our strategic platform the Life & Style editor got more features than she might otherwise have had.
Sometimes management jargon really is jargon. But sometimes it translates into a tangible reality. Strategic things are about creating a better working life for us in the future, whether “better” means less costly, less frustrating, quicker, or more flexible. That should make it meaningful for all of us.