The Water Gun Theory of Strategy Development

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One day, when I was five, I was out playing in the yard with the little boy next door. It was a typical super hot summer day in the south and I had just gotten a bright green water gun which I was ridiculously proud of. We were playing cops and robbers and on my order (bossy much?) I was the cop and he was supposed to be the robber. While I understood his role as robber to simply be running around while I shot him with my awesome water gun, he understood it to include stealing said gun from me.

I was furious. I chased after him, kicked him in the shin, and took the gun back. He kept after it and out of pure anger and stubborn will to prevent him from getting his little dirty boy fingers on the gun again, I threw it against the side of our house where it shattered into a million green, plastic pieces.

When Successful Tactics Fail

It was completely devastating. And while I accomplished my objective of keeping the gun out of his hands, I failed to reach my overall goal of playing with my water gun. It’s funny how certain childhood memories like this one are still so vivid while half the time I can barely remember where I last put my keys (half the time is being generous). However, in this case I think it is because it taught me a very important lesson which has carried through today: Tactics must be evaluated within the context of their individual objectives, as well as the overall goal.

So in this case I had two main objectives:

  1. To be in control of my water gun.
  2. To prevent neighbor boy from playing with my water gun.

The tactic I chose worked to accomplish objective number two, but in the process made objective number one impossible. Hence I failed to reach my overall goal of blissful water gun play.

I now call this the water gun rule of strategy development in tribute to my amazing green water gun (RIP), and it holds true across many life situations including developing, executing, and evaluating successful public relations and communications strategies. A really good example of this would be if you have an opportunity for a big media placement in an article which is completely (and possibly dangerously) off message to what would resonate with your core consumer base.

This might accomplish a goal of a top tier media placement, but fails to help your goal of increased sales.

You also often see this scenario play out when a short term gain is put as priority over a long term strategy. Sure you could buy 10,000 Twitter followers and suddenly have a large following overnight, but in doing so you miss out on the entire point of having a large social network: engagement, community, brand advocates, quality referral traffic, and qualified leads (to name a few). These nameless, faceless “followers” you just bought might increase your Twitter numbers, but with no resulting purpose.

Developing Strategy with Purpose

Unless they are unethical, individual communications tactics cannot be evaluated as bad or good out of context of the goal. There are very few stand alone “you must do this,” or “you should never do that,” instead we have a lot of different options, all which represent opportunities. Picking the right opportunities for your business is part art (understanding messaging, human motivation, and how to communicate in a way that resonates with your audience), part science (knowing where and how your consumers prefer to receive messages, understanding SWOT, search engine optimization, keywords, and what your consumer is searching for), and part experimentation (using Google analytics and other measurement metrics to understand what’s working, what’s not, and where you can improve).

Obviously not so simple as getting a story in the New York Times, or being on the first page of Google.

Goal Focused Questions

So how do you decide what makes sense and what doesn’t within the context of your business goals?

A good place to start is to focus on the following four areas: Brand, message, consumer, resources. And ask yourself questions for each:


    • Does this tactic align with our brand values and mission?
    • Is this tactic consistent with our brand voice and guidelines?
    • Will this tactic dilute or strengthen our brand?


    • Is our message consistent? Does this tactic maintain that consistency?
    • How broad of interpretation does the messaging of this tactic allow?
    • Does this message translate consistently and properly through all communications mediums and channels it might transverse ?


    • Which consumers or buyer personas will this tactic most effectively reach?
    • How does it do so? (this is included to help you avoid the “bright, shiny” tactics. That might be flashy or trendy but really have little or no affect on your goals.)
    • How will it affect the others?


    • Do you have the resources? Both financial and human?
    • Does the return on investment justify the resources that will be used?

Then take an overall look. How does this integrate in with the other tactics you are using, the other objectives you are pursuing, and your goals overall?

Start by answering everything from a short-term perspective (< 1 year), move to middle range (one to five years), and finally long term 5+ years). Do your answers change? If so how should that effect the tactic itself or it’s implementation?

Not only will this type of questioning help guide you when evaluating the value of individual tactics, they will also most likely help you see some additional opportunities you might have been overlooking.



0 thoughts on “The Water Gun Theory of Strategy Development

  1. biggreenpen says:

    Fabulous tips and the water gun story is proof that things happen in your life (no matter how devastating at the time) that you will be able to use decades later to teach someone something. 🙂

  2. biggreenpen Exactly! My life is just one big (almost always hilarious) learning lesson!

  3. belllindsay says:

    I love your posts. Like, seriously love them. This story reminded me of a very similar event from my childhood, involving a sprinkler, a brick wall, and my face. I MUST work this into my next blog post!!!

  4. hessiejones says:

    Laura, this is a great guide for strategy?  I don’t think I’ve quite seen it frame from this perspective. I love the parallel to the water gun story:)

  5. hessiejones Thanks Hessie! I think sometimes it is really easy for us to get sooooo focused on the individual tactics that we don’t often enough step back and say “Ok, but how does this affect everything else? How does it push us closer (or further) from our overall goal.” Or this is done in the beginning but not re-evaluated frequently enough….and then we break the water gun 🙂

  6. belllindsay OMG! Yes, you must! I absolutely cannot wait to hear this story! 

    I also want to go play in a sprinkler. Man, I miss playing in sprinklers, that was one of the most awesome joys of childhood. I’m going to make that happen really soon!

  7. AmyMccTobin says:

    belllindsay Because The Great Petrolino is a STORY TELLER. And THAT’s what it’s all about.

  8. AmyMccTobin belllindsay You ladies are so good for my ego! This is the best place to guest post ever! Let me know when I can come back and write again so I can get another little self-confidence bump!

  9. ginidietrich says:

    I’m concerned that you would get so upset you would break your water gun out of spite. Next thing you know, you’re going to be throwing your laptop around.

  10. ginidietrich No matter how hard you dig, it’s hard to turn up stories like these in the interview process …

  11. ginidietrich says:

    Eleanor Pierce Just when we think we have a great interview process, something like this comes out and we have to add more to our list of questions to ask.

  12. ginidietrich Eleanor Pierce I’m italian! It’s not my fault, it’s genetics. 

    Actually (I probably should not admit this) I now have ‘safe items’ designated for me to throw when I get really angry

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