Build or burn?

Let’s make a strategy

Many people struggle with strategy.  They must do, because I’ve sat through my fair share of strategy presentations and left no wiser about what’s intended.  Strategy is an aspect of management which is obscured by layers of corporate flimflam, making it seem so mystical that only a priestly class of senior executives and management consultants are capable of it.  Forget the fancy talk.  Anyone with a clear mind can do strategy.

What is the difference between strategy and a plan?  Many strategies could be renamed ‘this is what we’re going to do’ – a plan, in other words.  It is a minimum requirement but, really, a strategy should explain ‘this is what we are going to do, differently‘.  So many strategies fall down because the plan describes things that sounds like a repackaging of what the organisation is already doing.  A strategy should announce a change of direction.  A future that is different from the past.  A change.

What is the difference between strategy and strategic objectives?  Many leadership teams put a lot of effort into developing strategic objectives and then make the mistake of thinking that simply listing these constitutes a strategy.  Wanting to be number one in your market is not the same as explaining how you are going to achieve such a position.  I recall a chief executive of a large multi-national presenting his ‘growth strategy’.  In chart after chart he presented variants of a graph showing declining sales growth over the recent past with growth returning soon and eventually exceeding what had ever been achieved.  Each chart resembled a hockey stick.  The strategy lacked credibility because he never once described the means by which this turnaround would be achieved.

What is the difference between strategy and a mission statement?  Corporations get so tongue-tied trying to articulate a grand unified theory of why they exist that the result can be embarrassing. Many mission statements sound like a variation of ‘We exist because we exist’.

What is the difference between strategy and tactics?  I find this distinction to be one of the worst forms of intellectual pretension in management.  Who gives a f**k, just get it done.

What is the difference between strategy and a policy?    More semantics, this time from governments.  Public life is full of strategies, policies, and agendas.  Policy is for law-makers.    Strategies describes how things will be run.  Churchill’s strategy for fighting WWII was to ‘keep buggering on’.

In truth, strategy involves all the above components in different measures, according to taste.  But how can you spot bad strategy?  Easy.  If it resembles a shopping list of priorities, it means someone either doesn’t know what do or can’t decide.  Anyone with a clear idea of what needs to be done has a strategy, and it is normally one thing at a time.

This last point touches on one of the most common uses to which strategy is put – communication.  One of the reasons people struggle with strategy is that so many strategies are not terribly interested in changing anything.   Instead they are employed as a tool of communication about what the company is already doing.  That’s fine, only don’t pretend it is strategy.

Nevertheless, how strategy is communicated is important because you are trying to persuade an audience that your analysis is correct and that your proposed action will succeed, thereby enlisting them to your campaign.  For goodness sake, don’t try to come up with snappy strap line for your strategy.  Certainly, such things can be effective but, more frequently, they make you sound like someone’s embarrassing uncle.  The man with the hockey stick charts in the example above called his strategy Project Go (Growth Opportunities).  See what I mean?

If that’s what strategy is, how then do you ‘do’ it?  (See my tutorial on Strategy).  To make a strategy you need three things.

The first ingredient is a picture in your mind of the future and the challenges your organisation faces in that future.  To interpret this picture, you’ll need the ability to pick out and decide on only the most important things to worry about.  This picture of the future may be formed intuitively, forged in the heat of debate with colleagues, explained patiently to you by your boss, shouted out from the shop floor, teased out from market research or revealed by analysis from a firm of consultants.  To make sense of all this analysis, you need a clear sense of purpose.  If you don’t have one, you’re probably in the wrong job (or a new one).

Having visions is not enough.  The second ingredient is an accurate understanding of the present condition of your organisation, its markets, products, and people; it’s strengths and weaknesses.

You now have two points of reference: where you are now and where you want to get to.  The he final ingredient is a path between these two points.  It need not be a straight path.  It need not even be the right path, as long as you can recognise your error and change direction.  Whatever path you choose, that’s your strategy.

If you have no idea what’s going to happen next, it’s perfectly respectable to have no strategy.  There are those who rubbish the whole notion of a strategy believing in the 19th century military commander who said that ‘No strategy survives contact with the enemy’.  Or as Mike Tyson said just as well, ‘Any plan goes out the window after the first punch’.  Having no plan, however, is a strategy.  It’s a strategy of opportunism.  It requires you to keep your organisation’s ears close to the ground and ready to mobilise quickly.

Although sympathetic to this approach, I’ve observed that the man with the plan invariably beats the man without a plan, so I’d advocate having a strategy.  It’s not as difficult as it sounds.

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