Strategy Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

On the whole, you’d think the question of “what’s actually strategic?” would be a simple one to answer. And yet. All too often, being clear about what that is (and defining content that actually qualifies for that label) can be extremely difficult.

I do a lot of strategic planning facilitation. It’s a by-product of my continuing to move up the food chain of project management in search for the causes of failure. I started thinking that project failure was a process problem, and that the solution was in how we managed projects (it can be, but less so than you might think). That led to looking at challenges in how projects were defined at the outset (and clarity of objectives, outcomes, requirements and scope). This led to exploring challenges of whether we should be doing a particular project at all (which is often an open question). That in turn led to examining how organizations decide what projects they are going to do in the first place (which is often highly problematic). And so I found myself in the world of strategic planning.

It’s an interesting place to orbit, and an even more interesting one to inhabit. The problem is that, for most people, it’s an infrequent locale. This can mean it’s hard to recognize when you get there, and harder still to stay in place. Getting people to think strategically, or to define intentions in strategic terms, is extremely complicated if they don’t know what that looks like.

I’ve had executives, for example, that have wrapped up day-long sessions of discussions that were mired in the weeds with the exclamation, “Good meeting! I think we were really strategic today!” For all that he hoped that was true, he was deluded. The entire day was bogged down in operational minutiae. Not a strategic thought was uttered. Despite my very best attempts to encourage it.

A few weeks ago, I was facilitating a different meeting, again focussing on thinking about strategic priorities. Towards the end of the scheduled time, as I was clearly wrapping up a meeting that I was really pleased about, one of the participants started to get quite agitated. “But, when do we get to pick and choose? When do we tell you the specific things we want to do?”

What this team was used to was something done under the label of strategic planning that was more a building of glorified shopping lists of wants, needs, expectations and political imperatives. And it doesn’t matter whether the example in question is in the public or private sector. Those behaviours show up in both places. But undifferentiated lists of “build this, pick that, change this, and update this” doesn’t get you a strategy. Instead, it’s the organizational equivalent of letting a kid loose in a candy store. It’s just a better dressed kid, with a higher price tag on the candy.

We think we know what strategic is. And yet, defining and explaining what actually constitutes a strategic direction, choice or decision is actually surprisingly difficult. The dictionary doesn’t help much. The definition of “strategic” starts with, “of, relating to, or marked by strategy.” Which is just awesomely insightful. It’s never particularly useful to define a word with one of the word’s variants.

The dictionary at least does offer a couple of other perspectives that start to get us somewhere. Strategic can be:
– necessary to or important in the initiation, conduct, or completion of a strategic plan
– required for the conduct of war and not available in adequate quantities domestically (strategic materials)
– of great importance within an integrated whole or to a planned effect (emphasized strategic points)

And the idea of importance is often as far as we get in the process. It’s the interpretation we often wave about when using the label ‘strategic.” Strategic decisions and choices are presumed to be the really important ones. And they are, to an extent. But that simply doesn’t go far enough. We make important operational choices, after all, just as we make important strategic choices. Importance alone doesn’t get us there.

A different interpretation that’s occasionally employed is one that positions it in a continuum of terms: strategic, tactical and operational. Where that quickly devolves to is the recognition that operational is what we do at the front line, and so is the domain of supervisors and managers. So tactical decisions wind up with directors, and strategic ones wind up with vice presidents and other executives. This does nothing to explain what the terms mean, mind you. It’s just an identification of what pay grade that a particular problem gets solved by.

But none of this really helps us decide if we are being strategic or not. And we all are—and have the capacity—to be strategic. It’s question of whether we recognize the fact, and whether we choose to act on it.

That’s the start of strategy, right there. Choices. It is about making conscious, deliberate choices. In particular, choosing is a specific act of awareness and intent. It’s not something that happens by default, or by accident or as a consequence of events simply unfolding. Apathy is not a strategy. Abdication of influence is not a strategy. Deciding a specific course of action—and following through on that decision—is what ultimately represents a strategy.

Strategy is also not just choosing what we decide to do, it is also about determining what will not occur. When we decide to do one thing, we close the door on something else. We move in favour of one path, and other avenues become closed to us. Years ago, for example, very early on in my career, I got offered my dream job. Literally. It was one of the biggest theatre companies in Toronto, as head of sound for a major production that takes over High Park every summer. And I said no.

The consequences of that “no” were significant. The basis of it was straightforward: dream or no, I couldn’t afford to do it. I needed a different job, with a different pay rate. I didn’t have a different job, mind you, I just needed one. I said no to a firm offer, not knowing what would take its place. I firmly closed one door, hoping another one would open. It did, and led to the path I’ve followed since. I can trace my becoming the consultant I am today back to that one, specific decision. That one, very strategic, decision.

That’s another part of what defines strategy. Strategic choices are ones where we decide one path, at the expense of something else. Moving towards one opportunity moves us specifically away from other, different, potential futures. Saying yes to something means that we deliberately give up something else. And that’s extremely hard to do. We don’t like to do limit ourselves. But that’s the essence of strategic choice.

When I started strategic planning for one client, for example, the CFO set as a specific and precise success criteria: “I want us to say no to something. I don’t care what it is. I just want us to say no at least once.” Because, literally, they didn’t. Every good idea that showed up at the executive table got a green light. Every bad idea that showed up got the go ahead as well. Particularly if the idea came from Council (because, yes, it was a municipality). They weren’t making strategic choices. In fact, they weren’t making choices at all. They hadn’t met an idea they didn’t like. And every idea that showed up kept going.

What strategic choices do, specifically, is move you in a preferred direction. They set an overarching path of where you want to go, and what that looks like. Strategic decisions often still require details filled in, and there are open questions about what those details might be. That’s what make them a little bit more abstract and elusive. We set a direction, but there are numerous steps to get from here to there. And a lot of different options that might get us there. And that’s what makes the essence of strategy challenging: we have to choose the best steps forward, recognizing that success isn’t guaranteed, but that if we don’t choose we are bound to fail.

This is where strategy gets complicated. A really good strategic plan sets a clear direction, and defines specific wants and outcomes. At the same time, it can look incredibly simple. In fact, it can look vague. Because for all the direction that is stated, there is a great deal of action that remains undefined. There is a lot of “where to from here?” that needs to be elaborated. Actual implementation requires a lot of specific choices to still be made.

It’s one of the interesting ironies of strategic planning. Because when you read a strategic plan (at least a good one) it seems straightforward and obvious. It’s stunning in its clarity, but at the same time the question might be asked “We paid how much to produce that?” What strategic plans don’t identify is all of the things that were left out. They don’t speak to all of the opportunities that were left on the table. And they still require more work to bring to life. They feel full of promise, but short of actual detail on how to fulfill that promise.

And that’s the point. That’s what you want. That is, in fact, the essence of what you are looking for. If you have a plan full of specific, attainable actions, then you don’t have a strategic plan. What you’ve got is a list of low-hanging fruit that you need to go and pick (and that won’t require much effort to succeed at).

Alternatively, if you have a plan that is a list of generic statements and vague aspirations, then you’ve failed to be strategic in a completely different way. You have platitudes, not aspirations. You have generalized categories of action, in which any particular choice can be rationalized and justified. What you’ve essentially done is provide cover for anything and everything that the organization might choose to do, without making any choice whatsoever.

A statement like “Implement this particular piece of software” is a project. It might (and really should be) in support of a strategic action, but it isn’t one in and of itself; this kind of action is the step that comes after strategic plan, that leads with the plan and asks “How can we get there?” By the same token, “Leverage market opportunities to create new synergies” will potentially win major points at buzzword-bingo, but is an abstract, vague and meaningless platitude.

Something like “Develop market opportunities to make our core billing service relevant for the health care marketplace,” however, is getting close to the money. It’s setting a direction, it is picking and choosing, and it is being clear about the outcome that we want to create. There is still work to do. There are different avenues of how to do that work. Specific projects will emerge to make it happen, some of which we might now, and others of which we can’t even contemplate right now. It’s far reaching enough to contemplate a relevant future, and still broad enough to provide flexibility about how to realize that future.

Good strategy is specific, in that it states where you want to go and what success in attaining that result looks like. It makes active choices about one direction, that specifically and consciously ignores and moves away from other avenues. Strategy provides meaningful, motivational and aspirational momentum. And it leaves sufficient flexibility about approach and options to get there. The result is that there will be more more choices to make. There will be opportunities and actions and paths and roadblocks and hurdles and dead-ends.

But if you know your strategy, you’ll have the knowledge, the understanding and the clarity that tells you what opportunities to take, what dead-ends to avoid, what options to ignore and which possibilities to cautiously explore. And that is a powerful place to be.

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