I've been thinking about how you're a strategist. What does that entail? How do you go about getting into that area of study? How do you start learning about such a broad field?
My ideas for my life are fairly big and broad, making it difficult to know where to start. I know about the principles of kaizen, taking small steps that compound into something big, but there's still the question of which small steps (out of the 1000 possibilities) to start with. I'm hoping your experience with being a strategist might give me a few ideas.
You know, I been thinking about this exact same thing lately.
I first fell in love with strategy when I studied project management and operations management. The professor formerly did R&D and development for the U.S. Armed Forces during the end of the Cold War, before moving on to supply chain research and becoming a professor.
Amazing, amazing guy.
One thing I remember he said that stuck with me, these four words burned into my mind. "Depends on your strategy."
In operations especially, he'd talk about the tradeoffs between more automation, when machines break down, on-site vs. off-site maintenance/repair, things like that. And there's always be tradeoffs - X Plan might do better when times were booming, but had less flexibility if there was a dip in demand. Y Plan might be more flexible and leave the risk with a supplier, but you might lose 1% of gross. With a 10% margin, that 1% lower efficiency means 10% lower profits.
So you can pick up 10% more profits by bringing all the maintenance on-site, but if demand falls you might be left holding the bag on some costs you can't cut.
We'd all be sitting in class, and professor would run us down on these tradeoffs, and ask, "Which way is better?"
And we'd debate and answer, and he'd shake his head and smile, and say, "No! There's no right answer! It depends on your strategy."
Every single class, we'd get tradeoffs - more risk, more profits. Chance that this R&D pays off, or doesn't. Can you buy a company after they vet the technology? Can you buy the innovation instead of developing it in-house? If you plan on buying it, what if you can't and a competitor gets ahead of you?
How much debt to take on?
Depends on your strategy.
It all depends on your strategy.
Project management and operations were where I first started to like strategy. Then you mix in studying some history and governance and economics, and I got a general love - strategy.
But you know, there's no general title "Strategist" - it's not a profession, there's no university degree for it, no licenses or credentials except doing interesting things and getting known for it.
You're in kind of the same boat, M. You like kaizen, figuring out how the little efficiencies and tradeoffs add up to something big, choosing what to work on out of all the options... yeah, these are all important things. But who is going to pay for that? Can you walk into a place and say, "Hi, I know a lot about kaizen, are you looking for a kaizen expert?"
Nah, you can't do that. Nobody really knows what that is, or why they need it.
I think a lot of people are in this boat. With so much information available, modern communications, so much easy access to history and books and ways to connect and learn a diverse thing - a lot of people have a wide range of interests, but don't know how to present it to a potential employer or client or customer.
The field of "project management" is actually a good case of how it works.
What is project management? Really, it's just the ability to get shit done. That's pretty much it. It's scheduling, staffing, being aware of how to deal with when things fall off track, knowing what things absolutely can't fall off track (critical path stuff), knowing where you've got slack, estimating how longs thing'll take, staying on budget, communicating/negotiating with your staff and subcontractors and reporting to your boss or client.
Think about that. "Project management" - that sounds cool and prestigious, yeah? I think so, most people think so. You walk into a place and show you can do project management, they know what you do and if they need you. There's the Project Management Institute that certifies people with a PM background, there's undergraduate and graduate business classes. You can study business and specialize in project management.
But what is project management fundamentally? It's the ability to get shit done.
But "getting shit done" doesn't sound like a credentialed field with university courses and certifications. It's easy to get hired as a project manager, but probably not as a "get shit done guy" - as much as that's important, it doesn't have the mystique and aura and... y'know, that kind of thing associated with it.
This is the problem with blazing your own trail. You start off making no sense to people. If you pick something even remotely expansive, you risk sounding arrogant or crazy or full of it. Strategist? You can't get a bachelor's degree in strategy. There's no International Strategist's Society that certifies you. It's up to me to largely invent and evangelize my chosen profession.
So I got to create the role, blaze the trails, invent ways to build credentials and proof of concept, then credentialize myself prove concept. Of course, everyone loves stacking up money, so stacking up money proves concept pretty well. Likewise, producing real results for people in a variety of fields proves concept. And things like that.
Your challenge, M, is less about what you study, and more about you prove to others you've got the ability. Either to an employer, a client, or customers... eventually you've got to show someone that should hire you, contract you, or buy from a company you've built... or otherwise find a way to get cash and resources.
How to do that? Seems to me the closest thing to what you're doing would be an "efficiency expert", but that isn't so sexy is it? Is it well-compensated and in demand and fulfilling and enjoyable work? I really don't know. Maybe it is, it's worth looking into.
But if it doesn't compensate and fulfill the way you want it to, you'll need to create your own role, invent a way to get proof of concept, prove the concept, and evangelize the role.
It's a lot of work, my man. That's the downside. The upside is, you'll be the foremost expert in the world if you succeed. That's cool.
If you want to know what actually goes into "strategy", I covered it in this article - "Me? I'm a strategist."
The challenge isn't really what to study. You probably want to be studying Deming's work in Japan and Rockefeller's with Standard Oil, obviously. Diving into the lifecycle of companies when they rise slowly, then hit expansion, and slowly (or sometimes quickly) decline. Read The Innovator's Dilemma. Things like that.
That's all good stuff. But it's not your biggest challenge. There's plenty of things worth studying directly and tangentially related to your interest and focus. The biggest challenge is how you brand it, invent proof of concept, and prove concept. Just like "project management" is a more elegant description than "get shit done guy," you're going to have to find a mix of words and phrases that elegantly describe your chosen role.
And it won't make sense at first. You're going to have to invent a way to prove concept, prove it, and then evangelize your new role. That's tricky. It's a lot of work. But if it succeeds, you become the foremost expert in the role you just created.
It's up to you to find a term that you want to build around. Took me a while, but "strategist" comes close enough. Already some positive associations with it, covers the wide range of my interests. If you're looking to blaze a path for yourself, you'll want to find a term that describes what you wish to do elegantly, then demonstrate you're good at it, and show how there's benefits to your future employer, clients, or customers.
It'll take a while. It's not fast. The upside is pretty high though. Keep studying, study anything and everything related to your interests. Then find a term to tie it all together, and lay out what that field looks like - and show you can execute and deliver there. It's not fast at all. But the upside is tremendous. Godspeed.