I'm pleased to welcome Erika Andersen to Brand Mix today. She's here on the first stop on the Post2Post Virtual Book Tourto talk about her new book Being Strategic, subtitled Plan for Success, Out-think your competitors, Stay ahead of change. Without further ado, here are Erika's answers to my questions.

Question One: You define being strategic as: “Consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.” It sounds easy when you say it like that! But what’s the toughest part of being strategic?I’d say that word “consistently” is what most often trips people up. Often, I notice that even if a leader—or a group of leaders—creates an inspiring and achievable vision, and clearly defines the strategic and tactical plan for getting there…it’s all too easy to get knocked off track by whatever comes along: from day-to-day crises to a global recession!

But there are huge rewards to be reaped by those who can stay the course. I was just working with a group last week—a non-profit industry association with which we’ve worked for a number of years. They were coming in for a vision and strategy “reboot”—the yearly update we recommend our clients undertake to keep their thinking fresh and accurate—and they were pretty freaked out. Some in the group wanted to scrap the agenda and just figure out how to react tactically to some big and scary changes they were facing. I was able to persuade them that they could more comprehensively address their challenges by continuing to “consistently make those core directional choices…” etc. They re-created their plan to include addressing the current challenges, and were very pleased with the outcome—they ended feeling far clearer, more aligned and hopeful than when they came in.

Question Two: As you say in the book: “If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to know how to get there.” I’m interested in your idea of “reasonable aspiration,” something that’s in between ignoring reality and setting the bar too low and contrasting that with the idea of a really big vision or “holy grail” (meaning an ultimate, perhaps even impossible, end-point). Do you think that there are times when it’s better to set the ambition bar higher or lower? Does it have something to do with resources available (e.g. a large company vs. an individual)?

I think it makes sense to align your setting of the “ambition bar” (I like that phrase!) with your current reality and your obstacles. Which is what using this approach is designed to help you to do. For instance, if your current reality includes a truly passionate and skilled workforce, adequate resources, and a market niche just waiting to be filled by your newest product, and there aren’t any significant or un-addressable obstacles—then you can set your bar pretty high. On the other hand, if your current reality includes a number of important weaknesses or deficiencies relative to you challenge and/or there are major “trolls”—obstacles—blocking your path to the future, you probably need to rein in your ambitions, at least in the short term, and focus on creating a better starting point. That’s why I call it “reasonable aspiration”: “reasonable” relative to where you’re starting from and what might be in the way, and “aspiration” implying that you’re hoping for and intending something more than you have right now—something that’s meaningful and inspiring to you.

Question Three: I notice from the book and from your blog that you place strong emphasis on simplicity. As Da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” but I’ve also seen it used as an excuse to dumb things down and avoid putting in the work. How do you make sure that you keep things simple without letting them become simplistic?

That’s exactly why I’m so fond of the idea of “the simplest thing that works.” It’s one of the core premises of all the work we do with our clients at Proteus, my company. When you get on a roll of simplifying something, you can easily over-simplify it to the point where it doesn’t really work anymore—that’s when it’s “simplistic". But if you focus on simplifying just to the point where the thing (approach, explanation, system, etc.) is as simple as it can be while still accomplishing the goal, voila!—the ultimate sophistication (another absolutely wonderful phrase).

Question Four: As a brand strategist, I typically use brand positioning as a framework for evaluating what we look at and how we look at it. I’d be interested in your thoughts about brand. Has this be a help or an obstacle to strategy development in your experience?

I’ve found that having clarity about brand is an essential part of being strategic. A clear and compelling brand is—one would hope – an intrinsic part of any company’s hoped-for future. I guess the only time it might become an obstacle would be if a company thought that brand clarity, by itself, was enough—if they didn’t pull back the camera from that to look at the other essential components of the future they want to create. Or if they weren’t willing to let the brand evolve—along with the rest of the vision—in response to changing conditions. Disney might be an example of that—I’d say they are sometimes in danger of being strategically hamstrung by an over-focus on a tightly controlled brand.

Question Five: Pitch time! There are lots of strategy books on the market. Why should people buy yours?

The main reason I wrote the book was to de-mystify the idea of being strategic; to define it simply and clearly and then to offer skills and a model for making it practical. I wanted make this powerful capability available to as many people as possible. One of our clients, Nancy Tellem, the President of CBS, has said that, “Erika is to strategy as Suze Orman is to personal finance.” I found that extraordinarily flattering, and I hope it’s true—as Suze has helped people to see that they can have control over their finances and not be intimidated by the subject, I hope to offer people the same sense of capability and clarity around being strategic; giving them the tools they need to create the businesses, the careers, or the lives they want.