When I started writing about strategy tools, I thought it best to begin with the most basic and common of the frameworks we use: the two-by-two matrix.

Stupidly, I overlooked a more basic and common tool: it’s the first I pick up each day as I sit at my desk to work and the last I put down. And it’s so obvious and seemingly basic that I almost completely overlooked its utility as a strategy tool: the humble list.

Not everybody makes them, but I can’t function without them. And I would urge any aspiring strategist to cultivate a fondness and a discipline for making lists. Nothing makes me feel more at ease than seeing a co-worker or a client making a list: it reassures me that they mean to make important things happen.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that list-making is the defining mark of a great strategist, but I do think it’s damn hard to be good at this job if you don’t have a clear sense of what you want to get done and in what order.

Lists, it turns out, are as old as civilisation itself. Coincidentally, so are brands (and for more on this, I would urge you to read the opening chapter of my latest book).

Perhaps that’s why they are two of my favourite types of ‘thing’.

I write to-do lists every morning, but other types of list are central to the work of a strategist (at least in my way of doing things):

  • When I develop a work plan, timeline and cost for a project, I start with a list of all the stages to work through, and then develop detailed sub-lists of all the activities involved in each stage. Then I add the time involved, the people involved and the related cost. And I share the resulting spreadsheet with my collaborators and clients so everybody can see in minute detail what’s planned and can provide their feedback. Once the project goes live, the list becomes the basis for our weekly progress meetings.
  • During the planning stage of a project, I also work with the core team to develop a list of all the stakeholders and audiences to involve, and how best to involve them. Sometimes we’ll use a model like RACI, but more often than not, we’re guided by the question,

    ‘who will we feel stupid for not having included?’

  • And when it comes to action planning or launch planning, even if I use a framework like the nine-box matrix or a behaviour change framework to establish and prioritise activities, these ultimately end up in the form of a list of actions (in order of priority, each with a specific owner and delivery date).
  • On top of these, I keep lists of article ideas, lists of tools to write about, lists of beautiful and interesting words, reading lists, lists of resources and lists of questions.

No matter how many dimensions a strategist is capable of thinking in, there’s only ONE dimension you can act in: one thing at a time. And I think that’s why lists are so essential to brand strategy: they provide an impetus for action.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Wild Thinking, which was really a thinly veiled excuse to speak to inspiring people in interesting organisations about what they do. One of the people I spoke to was Mick Desmond, who at the time was Wimbledon’s Commercial and Media Director. The Wimbledon brand (and the entire Wimbledon organisation) is built on the idea of the ‘Pursuit of Greatness’ and Mick was keen to emphasise that the ‘Pursuit’ matters every bit as much as the ‘Greatness’. And a list is central to this pursuit.

In fact, the people at Wimbledon refer to it simply as ‘The List’.

In Mick’s words:

‘How do we raise the bar? There is a physical list, which involves every department and every committee member. Every year for about five minutes we’ll congratulate ourselves on a really great Championships. Then, after a bit of a rest for a week or two, we’re onto the next one. Members and stakeholders are interviewed. There’s a formal piece of research with our broadcast partners and our official suppliers. And then we try and glean from that where to improve. Entries on The List will range from significant strategic changes right down to a gate in car park four not working properly and everything in between. The directors take a week out to literally go through and discuss every entry on The List. We’ve now agreed what we’re going to do for this year in terms of building priorities, IT priorities and any strategic changes.’

Everybody who works at Wimbledon has access to The List and is encouraged to know what’s on it, at an over-arching level, as well as the priorities for their own team. And every detail is delivered: from fixing hinges and car park gates to positioning cameras for the most beautiful broadcast views over London. Larger infrastructure projects from The List are elevated into another list: the ‘Wimbledon Master Plan’, which typically contains longer-term, capital-intensive projects.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Mick which detail from The List he believed had been most instrumental in building the brand. His response: The List itself.

‘Having a list seems like a small thing, but that list drives Wimbledon. It’s what keeps us from becoming complacent at any given time, because there’s always going to be a list of things that we can improve on and do better.’

The process Mick describes is a case study in continuous improvement and how to manage it. And it all revolves around a humble list. Perhaps your own pursuit of greatness does, too.

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