What Are IDEAs Made Of: Strategy

Mike Rea

IDEA Pharma

What is ‘Strategy’? Seriously. Ask the question of your strategy consultants. If they don’t, at some point in their dissembling, say something about making better decisions, those are some pretty dumb consultants. Strategy is not, as has been reinforced in a fight fought a decade ago, ‘operational effectiveness.’

You don’t need strategy. You could choose a clinical trial plan based on what’s been done before (“hey, how about we mirror our competitor’s plan?”), choose a logo based on that colour you so like, and position your drug based on what some KOLs say they would do with it. Like a stopped watch that is right twice a day, sometimes those decisions will be ‘right’.

Strategy is simply the discipline and science of making better decisions. It is a business application of game and military theory, where winning counts…

How do you know whether any one decision is ‘better’ than another? Without strategy to guide you, you don’t. Unless it is a decision of the ‘should I avoid stepping on this cobra, or not?’ kind, you’re going to have to wait for the outcome. Unfortunately, unless you’re working with snakes every day (the real kind), the decisions you get to make don’t have such immediacy of response, such binary outcomes, or such a “d’uh” obviousness. You, I suspect, get to make decisions that cost real money.


“Consultants get paid to make strategy sound magical, to make it sound like the outcome of a proprietary process.”


Consultants get paid to make strategy sound magical, to make it sound like the outcome of a proprietary process. Well, the inside scoop is this: strategy, at its most basic, is good old, plain old, common sense. It is the systematic application of logic, planning and a thorough analysis of the “what ifs” and the “so whats” of the decision. Unfortunately, it is also the result of a lot of hard work – 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration. (That 5% counts, by the way, and it is the reason management consultants will have the hardest time with your first question… if you can’t generate the what ifs, you can’t assess the so whats…). IBM’s computer, Deep Blue, was able to beat the world’s best chess player (if you ignore the controversy generated by the defeated Kasparov…) by systematically working through what ifs and so whats for each move – hey, you can too!

Let’s presume that you have more than one alternative in your decision-making. Understanding the upsides, downsides and trade-offs of each of those alternatives is all that is involved, against both probable and possible futures. The key, once the principal metric (what ‘good’ looks like) is established, is to systematically eliminate sources of bias, error and uncertainty. Generating the alternatives isn’t ‘strategy’: generating, evaluating and then deciding between the alternatives, that is strategy. No-one yet has found a substitute, or a shortcut, that works reliably.

It is worth remembering that, while strategy can be simple and elegant, mostly it isn’t… it is often uncomfortable and counter-intuitive and is rarely ‘obvious’ or the product of linear thinking. Strategies are like ad agencies who talk about the Coke brand – everyone has one. Whether it is any good or not, though, is another thing…

About the author:

Mike Rea is a Principal with IDEA Pharma, who enjoys taking a look outside the industry to learn how it can think differently. For direct enquiries he can be contacted on mike.rea@ideapharma.com and for more information on IDEA Pharma please see http://www.ideapharma.com/what/default.htm.

Watch out for the next WAIMO later in January.

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