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The difference between “A strategy”, strategic tools” and “being strategic” can cause confusion. The ambiguity between these aspects of strategy often leads to heated arguments. It can undermines how strategy is thought about and designed.

To get around this problem I make a clear distinction between these.  Let me expand.

A strategy

A STRATEGY is entirely domain specific.  It is a specific approach in a particular domain of action.  for instance the strategy applied in a specific organisation in a specific market.

You do have to be careful here as there are generic strategies.  Some would argue being a cost leader, excellent customer service, operational excellence and market innovation are strategies. Rather they are labels for generic strategies.  The strategy itself is how you apply any one of these generic approaches in your organisation and specific context.

Beware. Just because to adopt a generic strategy label does not mean you have that strategy.  You have to actually apply it, meaningfully, in your context.

Techniques of strategy

Techniques of strategy, or rather analysis techniques that inform strategy, helps us to identify how we might find and develop a strategy.  examples include Porter’s five forces, Blue Ocean strategy, market research, etc.

Different approaches to strategy

We also need to be aware of different approaches to strategy.  These are well documented in Mintzberg’s Strategy Safari, where he identifies ten different approaches to strategy and how it is thought about.

Many of the techniques of strategy are actually aspects of these wider approaches.  For instance porter’s five forces and competitive analysis is an aspect of strategic planning.

Being strategic

There is a piece that is not domain specific.  That is the ability to think strategically.  let us call it, “Being strategic”

By ‘Being strategic’ I mean being aware of your environment, diagnosing issues, making choices, following persistent patterns of behaviours of time (Rumelt’s policies) and taking actions.

Being strategic also includes an element of learning and adapting: knowing when your pattern needs changing (or you need to adopt a different approach to strategy – emergent vs deliberate, say).  More akin to the learning models of people like Aryris and Bateson.

The problem with this question is that it can be answered at all three levels. And when one person answers when considering one way of thinking about strategy, people occupying the other models and ways of thinking about strategy will step in and say, “oh no it is not!”.

For instance Porter’s “What is Strategy” and Hambrick and Fredrickson “Do you have a strategy” are both assuming a competitive environment, yet public sector strategy also exists. Just as you can have a strategy to stop smoking.

The higher level view: being strategic

I think the higher level view is appreciating the variety of ways of thinking about strategy, and therefore being strategic, by thinking in the various ways.  Ways appropriate to the strategic question at hand.

In my opinion a great deal of value comes from “Being strategic” and understanding which techniques and approaches to strategy you are using to choose and implement your strategies. However this is an area that is infrequently explored when discussions focus on the other levels.