In a flap: Michael Goldthorpe on tactics, strategies and flags

It’s time. Papers are out, boxes are being ticked and talkback lines are running hot with people in a flap about the flag. But what exactly are we voting for? What’s the real question being asked? And have we bungled the ‘go-to-market’ process by putting the tactical cart before the more strategic horse? Here’s why I think we’ve done just that.

Strategy is about what and why. Tactics covers who and how.

A quick scan of Strategic Planning for Dummies reinforces the obvious fact that you can’t really choose carpets and curtains before you’ve built a house. But that’s exactly what we’ve done with the flag debate. Last year’s referendum asked “If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?” Say what? How can anyone sensibly answer that with anything other than a subjective response? And that’s exactly what happened.

Most people like the blue flag.

That’s what we discovered. Well, sort of. If you play with the Herald’s Insight toy it turns out more people put a ‘1’ by the red version of Lockwood’s flag. But it was close. Just over half a million Kiwis chose the blue Lockwood. A few more chose the same one in red and well under half that number chose one of the other three. Meanwhile, more than half the electorate couldn’t be bothered or refused to get involved. It’s only when you add up the preferential voting system that the blue one nudges to the front.

So there we have it. We’ve democratically chosen a design for our new flag. Tactics sorted. Now let’s ask the people if we actually want a new flag. The cart is in place, let’s see if we’ve got a horse.

There are really good arguments to change our flag. 

Does our current flag look a lot like Australia’s? Yes it does. Is it fair to say the Silver Fern is as important and iconic to New Zealanders as anything else? Yes it is. Can it be argued that our close ties to the Commonwealth have somewhat relaxed in the last 100 years? Yes it can. They’re all good strategic reasons to reconsider our flag. Do I like the blue one? Well, it’s not really relevant. 

Before we start on who or how, we need to ask the question why?

If opinion polls are accurate, it’s already clear how the flag debate will end. And I think that’s a shame. It’s a big opportunity for us to make a strategic statement about a small country growing up and standing on its own feet. But it’s descended into a subjective design debate, a political hot potato and the re-introduction of ‘vexilology’ into the more everyday vernacular. It’s all a bit sad.

Question is, how often do we fall into the same trap in our industry? How often do we pile into ‘getting stuff done’ before we’ve worked out why we’re trying to do it. If the mantra is “ready, aim, fire” how often are we firing without aiming or aiming before we’re clear on exactly who we’re aiming at. While “let’s make a viral” is now a brief of the past, “let’s do something in Facebook” comes up far more often than it probably should. Meanwhile “Let’s solve a business problem by digging in to interrogate the reasons behind it” doesn’t sit so well in our fast-paced world of get stuff done. And don’t get me started on the misconception that the ‘lean methodology’ means try it first and think about it later. 

Taking the time to think is a double-edged sword. There’s not much worse than paralysis by analysis. Progress requires pragmatism and there’s significant power in ‘doing’. But the most effective tactics are always anchored in strong strategy. So before you get started on ‘What’, it’s well worth asking ‘Why’. 

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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