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My irregular newsletter covers a wide range of ways of looking at your Strategy.  This one covers:

  1. Some common, yet inadequate, views of strategy:  often necessary: never sufficient…
  2. Typical characteristics or “A strategy”
  3. So, what is “Strategy”?
  4. Strategy as a process
  5. Some conclusions

By the way I have been running Facilitated Strategy Workshops online and getting really nice feedback.  So, if you need an online, remote working, strategy workshop, let me know.

Common, yet inadequate views of strategy:  Often necessary: never sufficient

  • Strategy as important: Don’t fall into the trap some have of ‘strategically adding strategy to any strategic sentence to give it any strategic meaning they strategically want it to strategically have’.  It may make it sound more important, but in reality it is probably vacuous and simply trying to sound important.
  • Strategy as a Plan:  If a strategy were merely a plan, we would not need a separate word to describe strategy, would we?  Be careful most when someone asked you for your ‘Strategic Plan’ 😊.
  • Strategy as a vision: Sure, have a vision, or a BHAG (Big Hairy, Audacious Goal) or whatever.  But sitting on a rock being a visionary or talking about it, is not having a strategy to deliver it.
  • Strategy as an objective: Neither is an objective a strategy, nor does calling it a “strategic objective” make it a strategy.  It remains an objective (or goal). 
  • Strategy as purpose or mission: Having a purpose of mission might help to frame your strategy, but purpose alone is not a strategy.
  • Strategy as passion: Just because someone is “passionate” about something, does not constitute a strategy. Do not confuse enthusiasm and noise, for direction, purpose and application.
  • Strategic planning: Do not confuse planning how you will develop your strategy, with planning how to implement your strategy.  Both can be strategic planning.  Both are necessary, but neither are sufficient.  Neither are strategy.
  • Be really clear of the difference: “Strategy”: the concept or idea.  “A strategy” a specific strategy applied in a context.  “Strategic” an adjective applied to those things (genuinely) related to the strategy. Also your ‘strategy process’ is not ‘your strategy’, but they interact intimately.

The characteristics of “a Strategy”

  • A Strategy has an environmental context: Understanding the landscape and how it might evolve is fundamental to strategic thinking.
  • A Strategy is specific.  It depends on where you are, and the journey you wish to go on. (Beware, copycat strategies do not work across different situations and contexts.)
  • A Strategy as focus and choice: choosing what to do AND what not to do.
  • A Strategy as leverage: What are the few things that will make the biggest difference.  (Closely related to focus and choice)
  • A Strategy has implementation and it has outcomes: Your strategy should create change inside the organisation and create outcomes outside the organisation. Each require a model of change within your strategy.
  • A Strategy includes change in culture and behaviours: Do not believe that “Strategy gets eaten by culture”.  That merely means there is an inadequate strategy for managing change.  Don’t get fooled by this one.
  • A Strategy can have multiple capital outcomes: Your strategy does not simply affect the organisation’s finances and economy; it affects our society and our environment.  It affects people and how we live and work, and all our futures.  You have a choice, that others are already taking.
  • A Strategy works on the system, not in it:  It is not about being “in the box” (that is operations).  It is asking where the box should be, what sort of box and even, does this need to be a box?  (of course there are boxes within boxes…)
  • A Strategy works in and across social systems: Our people, our suppliers, our customers and our context are all social systems.  Be clear how the strategy will affect, and be affected by, our social systems and how can we socialise it?
  • A good strategy requires an argument:  Actually, it requires two arguments.  First a management team should have a full and frank discussion and argument about the strategy.  Secondly, the argument for the strategy should be clearly explained when the strategy is communicated and socialised. (see “a complete strategy” below)
  • A good strategy frames subsequent decisions:  Given a set of possible decisions, a good strategy provides a context for, and understanding of, what is needed to make the right decisions.   Does yours?
  • A strategy gets tested a ‘wind tunnel’: Would you fly in an aircraft that had not been tested in extreme scenarios?  Of course not.  So, test your strategy against the wind tunnels of extreme scenarios you anticipate, to see if it still flies.
  • A strategy always contains tensions:  Lower overall environmental impact AND more exports.  Keep existing customers AND develop new ones. Lower costs AND increase quality. These sound like contradictions but are merely tensions that need to be managed.

So, what is “strategy”

  • Be conscious which “School of strategy” you, or others, are operating in:  Are you in the “Strategic Planning School”, the “Positioning” school, the “Emergent” school, strategy as a “Political process”?  Or another.  Intrigued?  I strongly recommend Mintzberg’s “Strategy safari” through 10 schools of strategy.  You have a choice.
  • Strategy as a hypothesis: In our contexts, Strategy is NOT a theory that can be proven and repeated (the context of our experiment has always changed).  Strategy is a hypothesis that needs to be tested.  A series of experiments to be learnt from and refined, or even discarded.
  • Strategy as a persistent pattern of behaviour over time: Always useful to ask what this has been when an organisation is unsure of its strategy.  What has been your persistent pattern of behaviour?
  • A complete Strategy requires 1) An understanding of what is going on and an underlying diagnosis, 2) a policy to address that underlying diagnosis and 3) coherent actions to deliver that strategy (have a read of Richard Rumelt’s “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” the basis of our Strategy Tablets)
  • Strategy requires a diagnosis: An understanding of what is going on, what will go on, and why.  An understanding and diagnosis of the underlying causes.
  • Strategy as a vector: It is helpful to think of strategy as a vector: having both direction and intensity.
  • Strategy does not exist without Action: Action alone does not create a strategy.  However, a strategy requires coherent action to be meaningful and complete (otherwise it is just an idea).
  • Good strategies exist in people’s heads: If your strategy is not in your peoples’ heads, then you might as well burn it.  If it is in your peoples’ heads and they are using it to make decisions, it can safely be burnt.  So all strategies should be (can be) burnt.  However, socialising your strategy first will help with implementation.

Strategy as a process

  • Your Strategy Process can be deliberate:  But if you choose a deliberate strategy, be open to “Stuff happening”, before your next review.
  • Your strategy process, and strategy, can be emergent: because we live in uncertainty and often do not have all the knowledge, yet still require action.  Continuous, rigorous, testing learning and refinement is the key.
  • A Strategy can work despite risks and uncertainties: The trick is two-fold. 1) Recognise that there are risks, uncertainties and unknowns. 2) Keep aware and look out for them emerging, then assess and refine your strategy.   (Of course, some research and testing your hypotheses is a good idea)
  • Strategy as a learning process: Apply double loop learning. Keep asking, is it possible the strategy is wrong or the context has changed?  Is it possible we are manging the strategy wrongly? (See my Strategic Learning Model).
  • The case for Humble strategy:  Strategy implementation requires confidence, but it also requires humility. Recognise it can be wrong, and be open to learning.
  • You don’t have all the answers! You don’t have monopoly on strategy. Really good in Insights and strategies can emerge from inside the organisation.
  • Strategy is not simply about what we do, but how we manage:  Do your strategies for how you manage, and how you manage your strategy, also need to change?
  • Oh, and a final thought: Has your strategy become too comfortable?  Has it become a habit, or even an addiction?  Is it time you reflected, review and changed? …before it is too late?

Some conclusions & further detail

Well, that lot should give you food for thought.  Most of these have an entire blog post somewhere on my site.   Should you want it, I have a whole strategy section on my website that expands on these various ideas in separate posts.  Have a look at my Strategy Zone.

And remember those paper intensive, cover the walls, lots of flip charts, stand round poster discussions, strategy workshops I facilitate….  They are now available as remote online facilitated workshop sessions… (and use much less paper).