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Over the years I have read many strategy documents.  Some have over-simplified their strategy to the extent that it is hard to tell what to do. What they write down sounds impressive, but is not a strategy.  What are the common strategy simplification mistakes? How simplified strategy causes problems, and what can you do about it?

The underlying problem is that pieces of the whole strategy jigsaw are used, on their own, to state a whole strategy.   The result.  People cannot guess what they have to do, because there is not enough of the principles, underlying thinking and guidance.  You must be wary of these.  Let is be clear up front;  A strategy is not merely what is important, or what sounds important. A plan is not a strategy and a strategy is not simply a plan. Strategic objectives do not make a strategy.  Nor do grand vision and mission statements. These are simply parts of the strategy jigsaw.  Give people only a part and they have to hallucinate the rest.  Is that want you want?

One way to look at these is to regard them as “Strategy by Fluff” (Attributed to Richard Rumelt).  Fancy sounding gibberish, masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments.

Let us look at the most common examples of what is not a strategy.

1.1 Strategy as important

“You can add strategy to any strategic sentence to give it any strategic meaning you strategically want it to strategically have”.

Yes, all that is happening is that the words strategy, strategic, strategically are being used to make things sound important. I hate this.

Please make sure you understand the different between that which is important, and that which may be strategic.  Do not simply add strategic in front of every word to make things sound more grand, or important, than they really are.  Here is a longer article about the big difference between important and strategic.

1.2 A Strategy is not simply a plan: A plan is not a strategy

This one that annoys me a lot.  If you look at the many LinkedIn discussions about “What is a strategy” the answers almost always start with “A strategy is a plan to…”

I often see strategy defined as “a plan of action”. (At the time of writing Wikipedia currently has this mistake).  However, every plan is a list of actions and activities.  So how is a strategy different?  If we swap the words over, do we have a strategy of actions?  (I have a simple rule, if we have two different words in English, they have two different meanings.)

To suggest a strategy is merely a plan of action, is simplistic and clearly inadequate.  A plan and a strategy are quite different. Planning is about implementation.  Planning is inside the box. Strategy is about a wider set of issues It is about the choice of action, not the list of actions themselves. The strategy should determine which actions are included in the plan, and why, and which actions are not included.  (See how do we tell we have a strategy).

Actually the Wikipedia entry says “a strategy is a plan to achieve a specific goal or objective”.  Again, I have never seen a plan that is not designed to achieve a specific goal of objective. (Though there ought to be a word for a plan that is not designed to achieve a goal or objective. I suggest perhaps “A vagueness”, “A wandering”, “A pouring of money down the drain”)  So suggesting a strategy is a plan, with the specific distinction of wanting to achieve a specific goal, is just a unhelpful nonsense.

This confusion between a strategy and a plan is worsened by talking about strategic planning.  Is that ‘planning the strategy’?  Or is this ‘the plan to implement the strategy’?  Who knows?

Let us be clear here.  A strategy is not simply a plan.  Having a plan does not enough to constitute having a strategy.  A strategy may contain a plan for implementation, but a plan alone is not a strategy and a strategy is not simply a plan.  In our strategy tablet we explain how a strategy should have coherent actions, that execute that overall strategy.

1.3 A Strategy is not simply a goal or objective (even if you put strategic in front of it).

How often have you seen a goal or objective, called a strategic goal or strategic objectives and put alone in a strategy document.  For instance, our strategy is to fix the world, be the best, raise EBITDA to 20%.

This is a statement of desire – not a strategy.  There is no description of how.  There is no means to the end, just a statement of a desired end position.

They are just goals, no matter how grandly you make them sound by putting the word ‘strategic’ in front of them.  These strategic objectives are not strategies.   (Though if you have a complete strategy, it is likely to gave some goals.)  There is an expanded version of this in Strategic objectives are not strategies.

1.4 A vision is not a Strategy

Another version of desire being confused with means. Stating a vision and claiming it is a strategy is another example, similar to pretending a goal is a strategy.  It is simply that the goal, the vision, is more impressive and often more vague.

1.5 A mission statement is not a Strategy

A mission statement is different to a vision.  A mission is essentially a purpose.  Think a visionary will have a vision, whilst a missionary will travel with a purpose. You can learn more about teh

However changing the vision into an active verb to describe the purpose behind the vision, is again not a strategy.  For instance, Our vision is world peace.  Our mission is to being peace to the world.  The second statement adds nothing to the first statement.

To suggest either of these is a strategy is to confuse vision and purpose with means.

  • The purpose or mission statement, “Why we exist and what do we want to achieve” is different from
  • The strategy piece: “How do we go about achieving it”.  (Though you need more that a how to create a decent strategy statement)

Yes, mission statements, or purpose statements, are useful.

Please do not confuse the mission with the strategy to achieve it.

Learn more about the language of strategy in The Strategy Zone.