Strategy-making's Rule of Thirds

How to sense when your strategy is on track

Barry Jenkins was on a roll. He broke through, made his name as a movie director in 2016 with Moonlight. The film won Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, a total of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Director.

Offers followed, including one to adapt the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad into a series. To say yes would force Jenkins to face some really rough material. 

Despite critics that questioned his decision to take on such a brutal story about slavery, Jenkins directed all ten episodes. A recent interviewer described the work as “by far the most ambitious and personally challenging undertaking of [Jenkins’] career.”

After the 101st (of 116 total) day of filming, Jenkins admitted, “This show has broken me, if not once a week, every other week.” 

He survived that hard stretch. Later on, in the editing process during the long summer of 2020’s Covid-19 restrictions and racial tensions, he went the other way. “I think,” Jenkins said, “making the show has been the thing that’s kept me together.” It was his one bright spot in a tough time.

Difficult choices make for dispiriting downs and uplifting ups. The same applies to strategy-making.

How do we know we’re on the right track?

Strategy is an orientation toward success that demands choice. After that choice has been made, how do we know we’re on the right path?

Simple self-measures can help us know.

Some runners, for example, use a talk test to gauge their level of effort. If you can carry on a casual conversation, then you’re in a certain endurance training “zone.” If full sentences are difficult, you’re in the next zone up. And if you can only get a word or two out at a time, you’re in your highest zone. Crude, but effective.

Another is that, when chasing down a goal—like making a strategy—you should feel good about a third of the time, so-so a third of the time, and crummy a third of the time. So goes Olympic athlete Ian Dobson’s Rule of Thirds.

Strategy-making is no different from sport in this way. There’s an objective, competitors, and a process for performance improvement over time.

Here’s a simple self-check for strategy-making. It works for the formal and informal, the long plans and quick adaptations. Use it for reflection, as well as in-process triage.

·      Was/is there a period where the process was truly awful, gut-churning, contentious, and downright difficult? If so, you know it involved change and effort which so often manifests as pain. 

·      Was/is there a period of so-so, maybe slow, maybe step-by-step, waiting on approval or consensus, holding milestone events to get some incremental agreements in place on the way to a strategy? Then if so, this is the natural friction of daily life that takes time to bring along a wide, diverse group into common action. Boring, but often necessary.

·      Was/is there a period of elation, joy, excitement, accomplishment and actual happiness that resulted from an accumulation of effort over time that turned out greater than the sum of its parts? Excitement born by effort that produced progress and results? If so, this is strategy too.

Strategy-making is all of these things. Not all at once, but over time the process rides this emotional roller coaster. When you’re up, don’t worry, it’ll come down. When you’re down, don’t worry, it should come back up.

When taking stock, look to others’ non-verbal cues. Do they believe in what you’re doing? Sometimes the best gauge is in the eyes of those charged to make it happen.

If you find yourself encountering only smiles everywhere you go all the time, then there’s no tough choices and whatever you’re doing it sure ain’t strategy.

If you find yourself part of a never-ending series of disinterested meetings with flat faces, then the subject you’re working on probably has no real stakes and isn’t worth your time (or your organization’s).

If you’re always in an argument and everyone in the room treats each encounter like Death Ground and won’t give a millimeter—then this organization sounds like one that maybe shouldn’t exist because collaboration and unity of effort is too difficult.

The Rule of Thirds isn’t precise. It’s not a kitchen scale. But it is a useful self-check that should pay dividends. 

Successful directors and athletes know worthy projects are always up-and-down. Strategists must know the same. 

*Afterthought: “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.” (Muhammad Ali) 

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt