One of the key terms we frequently hear in our work with organizations is “strategy”. To be a skilled “strategist” is to be held in high regard. It’s usually viewed as a key competence for success in most positions. And the higher up in the hierarchy the more important. It’s used as an adjective in front of all kinds of words to raise their importance – strategic planning, strategic position, strategic partnership, strategic goals...etc.
While we hear the term used frequently its meaning is often quite vague, often confusing and sometimes contradictory. For example if we ask, what the strategy is to achieve a future goal we will hear about a set of actions (the strategy) that it might take to achieve the goal. Whereas if we ask what was the strategy to achieve where the organization is now we will hear about the broad pattern of prior actions that led to the current situation. This second retrospective view may not be the same as the one planned at the beginning. Because, as it does, the real world showed up between the planned strategy and the implemented strategy. Changes were required.
Strategy also means different things to different people depending on where they are in an organization’s hierarchy. What's strategy to a sales manager is tactics to the head of sales, and an implementation detail to the CEO. Strategy is relative. For the CEO's administrative assistant, strategy might be taking advantage of the CEO's morning coffee break to get questions answered and documents signed. There is a strategy for everything, and usually, having a strategy is better than not having one; in part because having one requires that you've done some strategic thinking. Thinking about where you want to get to, what’s the current reality, what are the gaps or obstacles in getting there, and what might be all the ways to bridge the gaps and surmount the obstacles.
Try to build a strategy with a group and one of the problems you’ll run into is that different people want to focus on different things. The first step is to agree on a specific vision or goal. If the goal is loosey-goosey, people can justify almost any activity in the pursuit of those poorly defined goals. And then mission creep can occur. “I don’t remember what the specific language was on the goal and I can connect this current activity to the fuzzy goal, so let’s do that.”
Because there is so much noise around developing and executing strategy, and so much ambiguity in the language around strategy, it’s often useful to follow this suggestion of Michael Porter’s, the Harvard strategy guru, "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do, and not doing it."
It’s useful to define what you’re not going to do for a couple of reasons.
- When the team is stuck on defining the goal and hence the strategies to get there, choosing what is less important, what you’ll not focus on, defines the negative space. When we return to the task of defining the goal, we’ve made the problem space smaller.
- Explicitly, define what you’re not going to do, and people are less likely to do it. If what we’re going to do is vague and fuzzy, I can make my rationalization and then do what I want. Specifically carve things out from the strategy, and it becomes harder to justify doing those things.
We’ve never built a whole strategy by onion peeling, by just continuing to pull away what you’re not going to do, until what’s left is the strategy.
But it can’t hurt as a start.
What does strategy mean to you (or your organization)?
Are your strategy sessions focused or vague and fuzzy?