I recently happened upon a post by science fiction writer and digital culture commentator Bruce Sterling. It comprised two sentences — “*What the heck kind of ‘strategy’ is that? It’s like dressing for the day and putting on everything you have in your closet,” and an accompanying image:
I had to laugh because I’ve seen this chart — or something quite like it — in countless strategy presentations. Sterling captured one of my pet bug-a-boos perfectly — the so-called “strategy” that is utterly devoid of choice. And as anyone who is serious about strategy knows, strategy is at its core nothing more than a series of choices, notable as much for what you choose not to do as it is for what you choose to do.
I’m a staunch advocate of strategy — hey, it’s what I do — but I’ve grown increasingly concerned that the term (not to mention the art and science of the work itself) is making its way toward the Buzzword Bingo board. Either everything is strategy. Or nothing is strategy. Even if most executives concede the importance of strategy, they still suffer confusion around what strategy actually is. So much so that many business people may not even recognize whether they truly have a strategy or not.
So if — picking up on Bruce Sterling’s point — not having made any trade-offs or choices is one sign that you don’t really have a strategy, I thought I might explore 10 more.
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Your Strategy Is Simply a Collection of Tactics. This is a close cousin to the strategy-without-choice. You can recognize this one in its laundry list of the many things your business will do, as much as by its notable omissions — no framework to govern the choices you’re making, no overriding logic about how the pieces work together to achieve an outcome (a flowchart isn’t strategic). Unlike a strategy-without-choice, the collection may in fact be limited (by design or by default), but often only by the team’s imagination or sometimes by the budget. Naming your tactics is not the same as having a strategy. Although some of his examples of strategy cut pretty close to my definition of objective, Jeremiah Owyang has a helpful post on the difference between strategy and tactics.
You Strategy Is Really Just One Tactic. For example, content strategy is rarely strategy (ask anyone who really knows publishing and they’ll tell it’s also rarely content, but that’s another story) because content is merely one tactical approach by which you might execute against a strategy. Then things take a marked turn for the worse when you get into so-called Facebook strategies, Twitter strategies, Google+ strategies, Vine strategies, and so on. A good strategic framework might govern if, when and how you use those tools as part of your plan — but no matter how you label it, a tactic is never a strategy.
Your Strategy Is Merely Your Objective. I once had a real conversation with a Fortune 500 client that went something like this. Me: “What’s your strategy?” Her: “Increase customer loyalty.” Me: (Scratching my head) “OK, how?” Her: (Scratching her head) “Facebook.” Increase awareness. Acquire new customers. Grow average order size. Inspire advocacy. These things are not strategies — they’re merely objectives (and not particularly good ones at that). They provide the why, where strategy provides the what. Far too many strategic plans skip from why to how (the tactics are the how) without first establishing the critically important what in between.
Your Strategy Isn’t Even That. And by that, I mean it’s not a properly thought through tactical plan, nor even a statement of your objectives. Often, the word “strategy” will be thrown on top of a list of ostensibly interesting ideas. Consider the many many many blog posts written on topics like “5 Strategies For Better Blog Posts” and “7 Strategies for Getting Vine Celebrities to Work With Your Brand” – listicles that go on to itemize tactics within tactics, nothing strategic about them. Or consider this LinkedIn post about managing Gen X that purports to present a strategy but really does little more than explain the motivators of Gen X workers. By this measure, I might have called this post “10 Strategies for Developing Your Strategy” — you’ll notice that I did not…
Your Strategy Is Built Around a Bias. Advertising agencies are famous for this — dressing up a plan that recommends the things that agency does well (and, for them, profitably) as a strategy. But in cases like this, the basis for the choices being made can be anything but strategic. The same might even be said of management consultancies — who often peddle strategy in order to get paid for recommending a large-scale implementation that they (surprise!) are uniquely suited to deliver. But bias often runs deeper than poor partner choice — it might be baked directly into your organizational culture. Senior leaders often come into a strategy process with deep seated assumptions about what works and what doesn’t; about what will fly and what won’t; about what constitutes a suitable outcome and what doesn’t; even what business they’re in and what business they’re not. I’m in favor of evidence as a basis for decision-making, but when assumptions rooted in your past result in predetermined choices about the future, you’re introducing a level of bias that may render your so-called strategy all but worthless.
Your Strategy Feels Overly Familiar. Building on my previous point, even if you are making choices you might merely be making the safest of choices, doing the things that are most comfortable instead of the things that will have the greatest impact on your business. This is strategy that assumes nothing has changed outside your organization, that nothing needs to change within. That nothing can be improved, that no new avenues are worth exploring. While I’m not suggesting that every strategy must start with a clean slate, there’s no point in toiling away on a strategy if, as a result, nothing will change. As I’ve written before (yes, I’m quoting myself here): If your strategy doesn’t cause your organization and the people in it to believe something different about the business and behave differently in carrying out their business, then I”d argue you don’t really have a strategy at all. Properly done, strategy moves an organization from where it is today to where it wants to be tomorrow. To a different (ideally better, preferred) place it might not reach if it weren’t for the hard work of a well-defined strategy.
Your Strategy Is Static. I’ll admit that this one might not have been a concern even a decade ago, but given the pace at which conditions change in 2014 your strategy must be a living, breathing thing. There seems to be a tug of war between the people who slavishly adhere to an annual strategic planning process and those who feel that strategy isn’t a valuable exercise at all (I don’t need plan — I just need to do do do — these are the “collection of tactics” guys, and good luck with that…) Here though, I’m focused on the former. It seems simple to say that your strategy must be at least as agile as your market is dynamic, but it’s a point that often gets lost. Strategy is not a plan. Strategy is a process. And that process is always-on, just like your consumer.
Your Strategy Is Really Just a Plan. Plans are important. Very important. But a plan isn’t necessarily a strategy — it’s more likely a description of the means by which you will execute that strategy. And sometimes it has little, if anything, to do with strategy at all. Roger L. Martin notes in his HBR article on The Big Lie of Strategic Planning that planning “arguably makes for more thoughtful and thorough budgets. However, it must not be confused with strategy. Planning typically isn’t explicit about what the organization chooses not to do and why.”
Your Strategy Isn’t Being Executed. This one is a bit of a cheat since there is arguably a distinction between strategy and execution, but if your strategy exists only in the boardroom or only in a binder, then you may as well not have a strategy at all. A strategy is only as good as your organization’s ability to translate it into action. So while a plan may not be a strategy, a strategy must result in an actionable plan that your team can and will deliver.
Your Strategy Isn’t Achieving the Results You Expected. OK – another cheat, since you might in fact have a strategy. But you likely don’t have the right strategy. I’m sometimes confronted by clients who argue that they don’t need strategy, they need results. If on the one hand, strategy is change — on the other, the right strategy is the means for getting the right results. Lewis Carroll once wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Perhaps, but if you don’t pick the right road, not only will you not know when you’ve arrived; you might not arrive anywhere at all. The strategy you set and the results you get must be inextricably linked.
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I hope I haven’t given you the impression that strategy is some mystical thing. That strategists breathe rarified air or have a special something that mere mortals don’t possess. The fact is, anyone can create a winning strategy. You can create a winning strategy. But you’ve got to do the work. And above all you need to stop tossing around the word ‘strategy’ as if it can mean absolutely anything at all.