By James Ellis
I wish I didn’t know so many people, in places of influence and power, who didn’t know what strategy was. Too often, it is a word used in place of words like “plan” or “tactic.” Some people just use it as a placeholder for the idea that we shouldn’t make a decision instinctively, but to stand back and think about it for second.
This isn’t what strategy is. Strategy could be summarized as “the achievement of our intended purpose in a given context.” MBA words, all of them, but it’s actually pretty simple.
Strategies can’t be a plan, because a plan depends on the context (place, players, situation, your level of motivation, the motivation of your staff, your resources, the position of your competition, etc). All of these things shift at a moment’s notice, so a plan that depends on any of them is doomed if anything changes. Your “strategy” to enter the email service market went up in smoke when Google announced Gmail. The context changes, and so must your plans. Thus, a plan is not a strategy.
Strategies can’t be tied too closely to tactics, because those need to be selected closer to the moment of execution. Like a plan, too many things change. Your “strategy” to launch your product in Boston was great… until last week. Thus, a tactic is not a strategy.
Your strategy is the achievement of an intent. You want to be a challenger in a specific market. You want to be the number one player in that market in five years. That’s a mission or goal. How you achieve that goal is your strategy.
You want to see strategy in action? Watch a two-year old try and get a cookie off the counter. Watch them look at the field of battle, sizing up the height of the counter. Then they look for mom; how far away is she? Can she hear me? Is she distracted? They have a plan. Halfway through executing that plan, mom comes back in. Plan paused. The context has shifted. The plan won’t work. (At this point, how many companies would keep working on the plan, knowing full well it was doomed?)
A new tactic is demanded to achieve the goal. Crying? Maybe. Asking sweetly? Possible. Wait until the field is clear? That could take too long. Throw a toy to the ground and make a mess, causing a distraction? Yes. Boom. Cookie.
That’s the execution of a strategy. It evaluated many tactics, using the one that worked in that context. In a larger organization, where the selection and execution of tactics is selected by lower divisions, things only work when there’s a central strategy to align with.
I highly recommend The Art of Action by Stephen Bungay, the first book that looks properly at strategy as it originated in military thinking, and how it has evolved into how we make smart business decisions. (Don’t let the word “military in that sentence spook you: it’s a great read, even if everything you know about war strategy comes from watching the War Room scene in Dr. Strangelove).
So what’s your strategy? And where’s your cookie?