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Confronting the Dark Side of Strategy

By Expert commentator 02 Oct, 2018

For marketers, there’s never been a more important moment to reconcile ethics and strategy

If you want a room of nerdy marketers to bicker and disagree, ask them for a definition of “strategy.” If you want to make the debate divisive and uncomfortable, pivot into the topic I’m going to address today (you’ve been warned).

Strategy has become a toss-out word. Perhaps you work in a business where every plan, initiative, operation, idea, and launch is labeled “strategic.” Don’t you want to roll your eyes when you hear that?! Behind that bluster, what do we mean?

A good definition of a word is one that speakers of the language intuitively understand and easily apply. Strategy defies good definitions, which is part of why we debate, discuss, and write articles about it. I’ll offer a definition that works well for me in the marketing technology world: Strategy is knowing today why and how you're going to win tomorrow.

Now, for the gunpowder: Consider that this definition of strategy, and the dozens of others like it, has no inherent moral compass. Ethics is an afterthought. As a strategy consultant and pastor, I’m troubled by this. For marketers playing in the sandbox of data harvesting, geolocation, and influencing purchases, there’s no avoiding ethical dilemmas.

A strategy that ignores this moral blind spot is doomed to produce another Enron. As I will show though, we can imbue a strategy with values. My definition of strategy doesn’t make much sense unless we do.

Violent roots

Ethics and strategy have always been on awkward terms. The public discussion of business strategy is a relatively new phenomenon.

For millennia, strategy was the domain of military and political leaders. Indeed, the word strategy comes from the Greek words strategos meaning the general or commander of an army.

The ethics of warfare were culturally dependent. In many premodern societies, war was semi-ritualistic and not meant to cause mass fatalities. Conversely, 20th century war leveled cities, targeted civilians, and ended with unconditional surrender.

The point is that the tradition of strategy comes from a discipline in which ethics were suspended by necessity. If your objective is to kill and not be killed, not much is forbidden. Outside boxing rings and octagons, no one cares about a ‘fair’ fight.

Today, our business culture values transparency, accountability, and social consciousness, among other ideals. How do we reconcile these values with a tradition of strategy that says you should win at all costs?

Temptation vs. tactic

To find the balance between ethics and strategy, we have to accept some uncomfortable truths first. Even in businesses where we treat competitors with respect, we are not angels.

Business competition is often (but not mandatorily) a zero-sum game. For one CRM vendor to increase revenue, another one may have to lose revenue and, consequently, lay off employees. A winner may create jobs, stability, and opportunity in one community while reducing them in another. Winning is not immoral, but it tends to only be good for the winning party and its allies.

In the pursuit of this zero-sum victory, companies operate in at least two worlds:

  • The concrete world of operations, logistics, sales, dollars, and innovations
  • The mental world of brands, reputation, experience, emotion, and perception.

In the concrete world, some companies do commit evil. Maybe they use sweatshop labor, destroy ecosystems, or buddy with authoritarian regimes to lower costs and steal market share from their competitors.

In the mental world, ethics get messier. For example, if you fudge a startup’s numbers to draw in investors, create good jobs, and ultimately scale a company that benefits the world, can you consider the deceit a facet of good strategy? In marketing, is it ok to exaggerate, spin, lie, or deceive if doing so helps you ‘win’ – and presumably beat a competitor – by the definition you’ve set?

Packed into these choices, we face age-old debates: ends versus means; absolute versus relative; us versus them. I don’t think we can parse out strategy and ethics without adding yet another powder-keg word to our discussion: identity.

Confronting the Dark Side of Strategy (1)

Who are I and who is we?

When people join a business, they arrive with complex cocktails of identity: familial, religious, regional, national, athletic, artistic, political, occupational, and many others. Given these differences, 100 people could follow the same strategy yet make drastically different ethical choices. Here in St. Louis, knowing today why and how you will win tomorrow can spit out different results than the same formula, applied to the same business, in Delhi, Moscow, Paris, or wherever.

So, we have two options I especially like:

  1. We can trust in our business leaders to develop cultures, environments, and institutions that provide a shared identity for all the employees. That identity comes with values stating what ethical behavior means in the business.
  2. We can attempt to write ethics into the strategy itself, breaking free from that whatever-it-takes ethos. We can probably agree that a B2B technology vendor who makes promises to clients and breaks them has an integrity problem. That company could decide that honesty – being true to your word – is strategic. It builds trust with customers, retains their business, and therefore generates long-term revenue.

Notice that these solutions are compatible with each other and the definition I offered: Strategy is knowing today why and how you're going to win tomorrow.

You may win because you take responsibility for customers in instances where your competitors deny responsibility. You might also win because your marketing is transparent about how you use consumer data, while your rivals try to obscure the truth. Being the most trusted company in your industry might be how you win.

Is that strategic, tactical, or ethical? Maybe it’s all three.

Be Good and Win

I believe our sins find us out (remember, pastor). Whatever issues I may agree or disagree about with my coworkers outside work, I know in our profession we share a strategy, an identity, and values. We never give up being who we are, but, like the Power Rangers, we become something greater when we combine into one.

The implication is that we cannot weigh a strategy as if it had a net balance of good and evil. Rather, each tactic, action, and choice should be judged individually, against lucid values, in its own context. The maintenance of ethics is a duty shared by the whole community of employees. In a conscientious company, people are responsible for their own actions, but they are also accountable for upholding the highest character of their peers.

Let’s not run away from strategy’s military roots. Let’s keep reading Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and the other classics. But, let’s remember that they operated on different ethical terrain with life-and-death stakes.

So, back to the room of marketing nerds, where I floated my definition of strategy: knowing today why and how you’re going to win tomorrow.

Choosing an identity for your company is part of why and how you win. You win because your company is united around ageless, unwavering values infused into a strategy. How you win is, largely, by doing good upon your customers, partners, co-workers, and community.

Ethics isn’t strategy, but a good strategy is ethical.

By Expert commentator

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