What is strategy, anyway?

What is strategy, anyway?


“Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations.” ~Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

A Conundrum

Fewer than 10% of people say they understand their company’s strategy and how it connects to their daily work. This isn’t a particularly shocking statistic to anyone who has been around the block a time or two. What may surprise you is this: A study published in the Strategic Management Journal in 2011 found more 90 accepted definitions of the word strategy in use between 1962 and 2008. 90! It’s hard to understand a concept that can be explained 90 different ways.

 What is Strategy?

Why is this seemingly benign question so difficult to answer? The answer may lie in the simple fact that strategy is often defined one way, but described in another. Ask any manager to define strategy, and you’ll likely be told that it’s a plan, a map that guides the organization from here to there, or something along those lines. Then ask the same manager to describe the strategy her organization has pursued over the past three years, and you’ll find that the manager is more than happy to engage in a thoughtful discussion on the topic, completely oblivious to the fact that her description conflicts with her previously stated definition (See Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning).

How can we reconcile this manager’s dilemma? We have to work backwards to arrive at a definition of strategy that’s consistent with its description. Said another way, to know what strategy is, we first have to know what it does. So . . .

What does strategy do, anyway?

There is no shortage of ideas a management team can pursue in an effort to sustain an organization. Indeed, the number of ideas about what an organization could do will always outweigh the number of initiatives an organization will do. “Could do” ideas can come from anywhere; some are the byproduct of a deliberate planning process, while others (most, in fact) emerge unintentionally from the chaos of daily life. Few, if any, of these ideas show up fully formed. Instead, managers are presented with imperfect ideas rooted in imperfect information.

This is where strategy shows up. Not as a plan, project or initiative, but as an ongoing process of filtering ideas and making decisions about future courses of action.

There are a few key points worth noting as it relates to the process of filtering ideas:

  1. The filtering process is not exclusive to the top management of an organization. It occurs at the business unit, departmental, divisional, team and individual levels, as well.
  2. The filtering process occurs continuously at all levels of the organization. It’s an ongoing process, as opposed to a one-time event.
  3. The filtering process does not have to be formally articulated to exist. It can be structured, semi-structured, or completely undefined.

Filtering is strategy’s doing. Whether the filtering occurs consistently throughout the organization depends on how clearly and concisely its elements are communicated to others. These elements include the organizational purpose, management philosophy and communication style. The value of clearly and concisely communicating these elements lies in the simple fact that they are relatively stable over time, making them easier for members of the organization to understand and act upon.

What’s the relationship between ideas, strategy and plans?

Earlier, I suggested that most managers, when asked, will define strategy as a plan (or something close to that). However, I’ve now asserted that strategy is not a plan, but an ongoing process of filtering ideas and making decisions about future courses of action. By taking a process view of strategy, we can begin to see why a manager might be inclined to define strategy as a plan.

The input-process-output (IPO) model, commonly used in systems analysis and software engineering, provides a good framework for thinking about the relationships between ideas, strategy and plans.

Understanding strategy as the process of filtering ideas and making decisions about future courses of action fits neatly within the IPO framework. Ideas about what an organization could do serve as the input to the process. Strategy, is the process of filtering these ideas. The filtering can be extremely porous, allowing ideas to move into the organization relatively unchanged, or it can be a transformative process of collecting, vetting, influencing, masking and/or transmitting ideas to members of an organization. Plans, projects and initiatives represent different types of outputs of the process.

So, why do most managers commonly define strategy as the plan? Because this is the first contact many of them have with strategy. This is what strategy looks like to the majority of the organization. The process of filtering and decision making that delivered the plan to their doorstep is a mystery to most people, yet, this is where the actual strategy of the organization can be found. The plan, project or initiative, is simply an output of the process, “strategic” in as much as it was delivered from the strategy making process.

How can we increase the likelihood of successfully implementing strategic initiatives?

What can management teams do to improve the odds of success when attempting to execute a strategic plan, project or imitative? Below are six key takeaways for your consideration. As managers, we should remind ourselves that there are no guarantees in business. The surrounding environment is unpredictable and what works in one context will not necessarily work in another. We have to be alert and open to the possibility that our plans, having been rooted in incomplete ideas and imperfect information, may need to be changed or scrapped entirely. That’s perfectly alright, as long as we incorporate that learning into the strategy making process, so as to improve the odds of success on future efforts.

Six Key Takeaways

  1. Articulate the Purpose in a way that is clear, concise and focused, and strive for widespread understanding. As mentioned earlier, organizational purpose is the most important element in the filtering process, consisting of the business model and the organizational credo (vision, values and mission).
  2. Anchor discretionary initiatives to the Purpose. Because the Purpose is relatively stable over time, it serves as an excellent anchoring point for new initiatives. Showing how an initiative connects to the business model, vision or mission of the organization will help those responsible for its execution better understand the “why” behind the “what”.
  3. Identify, test and continually monitor all key assumptions. Unfortunately, few management teams take the time to identify the key assumptions that support their initiatives, instead treating them as facts or ignoring them entirely. Even when assumptions are taken into account, we must remember that external conditions are always changing, some faster than others. As such, an assumption that proved valid at the start of the initiative may no longer be valid halfway through. Therefore, key assumptions should be monitored throughout the life of the initiative.
  4. Know who the opinion leaders are and bring them onboard early. Every organization has opinion leaders, that is, those individuals who are able to influence other individuals’ attitudes or overt behavior informally in a desired way with relative frequency. Knowing who they are, what motivates them and how to effectively communicate with them, can spell the difference between internal acceptance of an initiative or its passive rejection.
  5. Manage slack and tradeoffs. When introducing a new initiative into the organization, it’s important to re- member that managers are always in the middle of something else. They’re inherently busy people, dealing with functional tasks, responding to emergent events, and helping those under their charge. Pushing too many initiatives into the organization, without regard for existing capacity, induces feelings of anxiety and frustration in those being asked to do more with less. It’s important that management teams consider the workload and assist with the prioritization of new and existing initiatives, while remaining mindful of day- to-day operational commitments.
  6. Know what skills are required for a successful implementation. Not all initiatives are created equal, and therefore, do not require the same skills for a successful implementation to occur. This is particularly problematic when management teams make the assumption that a project manager who was successful in one context (for example, managing large capital expenditure projects) will be equally successful in a different context (like implementing a new ERP system or working with the local government on a compliance project). The skills and abilities that make a project manager successful in one setting will not ensure their success in another setting.

Adhering to all six of these takeaways will not guarantee a successful implementation. There exists, to
my knowledge, no such list that can make that claim. However, this list is unique in that it blends logical thought with a focus on the way people within the organization will experience the strategy. This is an important distinction given that strategic efforts are carried out by people, and the way those people experience the strategy will influence their decisions to adopt or reject the plans, projects or initiatives that come out of the strategy making process. As Drew Westin, professor of psychology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University explains in his book, The Political Brain, “When reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.”


About Brad

Brad is an idea guy with a pragmatic bent. He enjoys looking at conventional topics in unconventional ways by combining his 20 years of industry experience with his intellectual curiosity and insatiable appetite for learning. Brad delivers his message through S2A’s training and development programs, to include the highly-praised virtual workshop, Demystifying Strategy: An Essential Course for Management and virtual seminar program, Strategically-Minded Project Leadership (SMPL).     

If you’d like to know more about Demystifying Strategy, the SMPL Development Program, Brad’s favorite red wines or where to find the best running trails on the east coast, direct message him on LinkedIn or visit learn.s2a.org.