Marcello Magalhaes from Speakeasy – Knowledge Brokers uses the Greek letter 'π' as a metaphor for a successful strategist skill set characterized by three key components: breadth of knowledge, specialization and empathy.
My older nephew, Felipe, who is starting his career as a strategist, recently approached me with a classic inquiry that many strategists face throughout their entire career: : how do you develop a successful career as a strategist? Go generically broad or go specifically deep?
He loves to think about broad perspectives on problems. Still, he recognises that many of those require a specialised set of technical skills.
The easy answer would be the visual idea attributed to David Guest, back in 1991,1 and popularized by Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO Design Consultancy, when looking over applicants' resumes: the two-dimensional 'T-shaped' professional. These people combine a vertical bar of deep knowledge and respective technical skills while also expanding and becoming knowledgeable and while working collaboratively in other areas of expertise – this makes the horizontal bar of the 'T' shape.
However, the past couple of years have been confronting us with far more complex and wicked problems. Not just from a business or financially efficient perspective, but multi-layered instances. Examples: if you are working on a product innovation project, it's no longer possible to focus on the best technological or financial outcome, you must also focus on the environmental, social, and legal consequences of that.
It means, for instance, a UX strategist can't afford to just plan for the most effective brand experience a person can have, but must also consider and foresee the unintended consequences – (meaning: potential social and environmental damages) an embedded algorithm, for instance, might have in the social behaviour it triggers (structural racism, biased social views, etc.).
But at an individual level, how can we cope with such complexity? To what extent can we stretch ourselves to cover all the bases required to work with innovation and creativity with responsibility, ethics, and consequence? We just can't. Evolving strategic thinking means reconsidering the whole conception of how we build our careers.
The not-so-new-idea of a career and skill set structured not only by the synergies and intersection of one horizontal dimension (breadth generalist) and a vertical (depth specialization) one. But actually, a third vertical skill-set dimension might shed a meaningful path for strategists who are willing to thrive and survive amid such a vertigo of changes and transformations we are going though in contemporary times.
Such multifaceted strategic challenges require another vertical expertise that can spot and develop advanced trans-personal/professional skills. That refers to the professional capacity: it has to do with EMPATHY.
The concept of a knowledge broker, who can identify the right experts – 'who' – and know 'how' and 'when' to involve them in the problem-solving process, was initially explored by academics from the Design field4 and fits the bill of brand strategist's contemporary reality.
On top of coping with ambiguity, being creative for solving problems, and offering coaching and inspiration, the strategists will have to better understand and put diversity and representation at work to crack the most challenging problems – to be solved by collective fine-tuning orchestrated teams.
If anything, π should be a constant reminder to strategists that their role requires a lovely blend of art and science. For π represents an irrational and transcendent number.
"Irrational, a term originally conceived by the Greeks from the etymology of "irrationality" or “illogical”, meaning that it cannot be written as the sharp ratio of two integers."
"Transcendent of π has two important consequences: first, π cannot be expressed using any finite combination of rational numbers and square roots. Second, since no transcendental number can be constructed with compass and straightedge, it is not possible to 'square the circle'".
Isn't it precisely what keeps us passionate and excited about brand strategy: To square the circle?5
Future of Strategy 2021
Marcello Magalhaes' piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.
1. "The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing," in The Independent, September 17, 1991.
2. To type π on Mac: Simultaneously press the left [option] key and [P]. On Windows: Press [alt] and then type in .
3. The number π (/paɪ/; spelled out as "pi") is a mathematical constant. It is defined in Euclidean geometry as the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter (Wikipedia).
4. Bertola, P and Teixeira, J C Design as a knowledge agent: How design as a knowledge process is embedded into organizations to foster innovation', Design Studies Vol 24 No. March 2, 2003: Elsevier
5. Captured at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi