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Extreme Strategists

Caroline Jaine's picture

People in my profession have struggled with the idea of strategy - what it means, how to implement a communications strategy, how is strategy different from policy, where is strategy different from planning?

This weekend I met some of the world’s best strategists.  And they weren’t working in government or political organisations.  They work in sport.   You might think that motor-racing had little in common with my field of strategic communications in conflict environments, but this is not any-old motor-racing - it’s Formula 1.

When I was first introduced to the sport a few years ago I snorted derision at this boring race, which, on the surface of it, looked like a handful of very similar looking cars driving around in circles for hours.  Through careful, patient coaching, I began to appreciate the level of strategic thought involved.  And then, after a few years of being a novice race-fan, it finally happened.  The passion for F1 seeped into my work.  I was delivering a lecture at London Metropolitan University about Public Diplomacy earlier this year, and a student questioned the credibility of an Ambassador if he was unable to say anything but the public-line and never express how he felt or what he thought.  It’s not just Ambassadors who behave like this, I quipped.  Others at the very top of their game still have a line to toe, they are still part of a team and have to be strategic in what they say and think.  I was thinking of Lewis Hamilton.  I noted, just like Ambassadors, Formula 1 drivers have started to use Twitter and both Foreign Ministries and Grand Prix sponsors have started to understand the credibility of the individual voice for their brand (@rubarrichello and @AmbRivkin two good examples to follow).

And now I have gone down this path, it’s hard to turn my back on the analogy: A communications operative working in the field of conflict has to build a developing strategy for their work, something that will see them progress and triumph in adversity; he or she needs to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of every competing voice/team (and some of the friendly ones); and be absolutely on top of all new technology available to them  - this is a fast moving environment.   A press officer under fire needs to understand the element of chance -  just as an F1 team does the weather - and see how apparently difficult events (like rain) can be turned into an advantage.  I could write a whole chapter of a book on tyre strategy alone!

Since the death of Ayrton Senna, the FIA are absolute masters at mitigating for danger and loss of life.   There must be lessons here for the United Nations and other organisations struggling in war zones to be at the top of their game, whilst balancing a duty of care to its staff.  But one thing, I think that will chime with conflict professionals, is the ever-changing rules of the game.  It’s what puts the formula into Formula 1.  If you are used to working in fast-moving environments, with policy masters who change their minds, budgets and priorities – then a close look at the ability of F1 teams to rapidly adapt to new versions of their game would be a huge advantage.  “It’s what it’s all about,” McLaren’s Test Team Manager, Indy Lall told me this week.   Maybe the cash-struck development sectors in life cannot afford to run a “test-team”, but a close look at the process wouldn’t cost a penny.

So next time I struggle with strategy, don’t be surprised if I turn up to class in a fire-proof racing suit and sponsored baseball cap. 

Photo Credit: Caroline Jaine

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Submitted by Tony Thompson on
As a fellow F1 fan, I would have been interested in seeing you develop the analogy to F1 further. Often F1 teams don't make the right call. How to handle the down-side of bad outcomes or major blunders? Drivers sometimes make big mistakes, e.g. Lewis Hamilton post-Canada, and rapidly recover from them. Any lessons for us? Thanks!

Submitted by Caroline on
Thanks Tony, Nice to meet another F1 fan! I guess it's a case of learning to be resilient, and mitigating for mess ups. Lewis is in another league (having just watched the new Senna movie the likeness in spirit made me shudder). If only international organisations and governments could find Heads of Mission who had the same determination and eye on a fixed win - they would potentially bounce back from any adversity. He has his job in his heart. But maybe having two drivers helps a team more - perhaps a double Head of Mission would work - one a firey new comer another a proven champion? The analogy is a loose one of course - F1 has enough money to float through big-mistakes whereas big organisations don't have the luxury. Maybe more could be said about employing experts, building team spirit through strong brands and competition, and investing in research!

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