Is Strategy Like Poetry?

17. september 2014

Af: Mette Vesterager, Hein & Partnere

“RIP IT OUT” shouts teacher John Keating to his pupils in the movie Dead Poets Society. He’s referring to a book page which claims to hold a formula for measuring the greatness of poems. And perhaps we should get rid of such formulas – not only for poems, but also for people, ideas and strategies. 


This week the passing of the great actor Robin Williams reminded me of his amazing performance in Dead Poets Society. In this film taking place in 1959 he plays an English teacher with quite an alternative and controversial approach to teaching poetry. He claims that you can’t put poetry on a mathematical formula. That you can’t measure a poem’s greatness. This is contradictory to what the textbook says on one of its pages. And he requests that the boys rip it out.

I think most people would agree that we can’t measure the greatness of a poem. What’s interesting is how many other things we want to put on a formula: People, ideas, strategies. All the time we are looking for objective measures on our everlasting quest for certainty. But the certainty isn’t there.

Sociologist William Bruce Cameron puts it this way: “It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”. When we are dealing with people (and we always are) we limit ourselves if we focus solely on what is measurable.

This is not to say that numerical data isn’t important. And that it isn’t important to transform those data into information and knowledge. It is. But it isn’t enough.

Now take strategies. I believe a strategy has more similarities with a poem that you would think:

  • A strategy should use few words to describe something highly complex – and make it simple. Unfortunately, some consultants promote complexity over simplicity in the effort to demonstrate their own value.
  • A strategy should present us with a new worldview that we perhaps didn’t even know was possible. To finance new initiatives we used to rely heavily on banks. Today, we might be able to finance it with crowdfunding. New game-changing views that challenge old assumption is something great poetry and strategy have in common. As John Keating puts it: “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way”.
  • And finally, a strategy should move our emotions. Although we humans think highly of our rational capabilities, emotions are what make us put words into action. A strategy that doesn’t touch its audience at a deeper level, is a strategy that will collect dust on the shelf. A great strategy should show us the road to a dream, to a cause worth working for and to the fulfillment of high ambitions and basic psychological needs.

Just like John Keating asks his students to rip out pages of a book on poetry, I could think of some pages that could be ripped out of books on strategy. Maybe you can as well. But I can also see new pages written embracing these three principles above.

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