What is ‘strategy’?

The word “strategy” is one of those words used in business and marketing to add importance to a statement or argument. For all of those strategy statements: strategic roadmaps, corporate strategies, innovation strategies, and so on, most ideas labeled as “strategy” fail to affect meaningful change.

The word “strategy” is one of those words used in business and marketing to add importance to a statement or argument. For all of those strategy statements: strategic roadmaps, corporate strategies, innovation strategies, and so on, most ideas labeled as “strategy” fail to affect meaningful change.

Personally, I think we’ve come to misrepresent strategy and fail to understand how it can really change and boost an idea, a plan or an organisation. While the dictionary reference for strategy is:

A plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result.

there’s more to it than thinking about the best way get a result. And this is why I think “strategy” is misrepresented: to come up with a strategy that will really affect change, you need to understand a lot more about yourself or the issue in question.

How can you create a plan if you don’t know the goal? So many business goals are based around increasing sales, profits/margins or some other financial reference. While it’s important in business to keep a commercial outcome as an integral part of your approach, this oversimplifies the goal.

There’s many different and contrasting ways to increase sales or profits: so how do you choose the right one? You have to know more about your goals. Don’t cut staff or budgets to increase profits if you expect to deliver the same level of service or outputs.

The same goes for developing the plan to achieve your goal: before you can develop a strategy you have to know your own advantages, opportunities, limitations and resources.

What got me thinking about strategy was Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. Rumelt identifies four common strategy mistakes:

  1. Fluff: Fluff is a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts and arguments.
  2. Failure to face the challenge: When you cannot define the challenge, you cannot evaluate a strategy or improve it.
  3. Mistaking goals for strategy: Many bad strategies are just statements of desire rather than plans for overcoming obstacles.
  4. Bad strategic objectives: Strategic objectives are “bad” when they fail to address critical issues or when they are impracticable.

Perhaps if we’re thinking about strategy, a good place to start is to check that any strategy is checked against this list before going any further. Good strategy is game-changing, revolutionising the way someone, something or a business operates to realise true success. Bad strategy is, as Rumelt eloquently puts it, fluff.

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