Try answering this question, in one sentence: What is Strategy? Not so easy.
The Oxford dictionary defines strategy as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”.
This is . . . simplistic and not really actionable. Dig a little deeper, and the complexity ramps up. There are literally 1000’s of descriptions and explanations out there. That being said, the difficulty in fully comprehending ‘strategy’ as a concept does not really lie with the variety of descriptions, but with the people giving those descriptions. To understand this a bit better let’s turn to cognitive psychology (bear with us!), and more specifically ‘Complexity Bias’.
Have you ever wondered why situations seem so complicated, until they aren’t? That is the human brain’s instinctive and subconscious tendency to overcomplicate, i.e., Complexity Bias at work. It is simply how we are wired. Inevitably then, those of us who talk about strategy, aren’t clear on what it actually is. Over the years you may have absorbed 100’s of overly complex definitions, all of which mix to a blurred mess in your own head.
So, let’s simplify. Here is the Oxford dictionary definition again:
“a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”.
And let’s bring in Philip Kotler’s (one of the fathers of Marketing) classification:
“Strategy is deciding what not to do”.
Now we are getting somewhere! Combine the two, and we have something that resembles the JDS definition of strategy:
Deciding what you want to achieve = Long term aim
Choosing the right set of tools to get there = Plan of action
Forgetting everything else = What not to do
To understand this a bit better let’s take a real-life example of someone’s long-term aim to run a marathon. Should their training plan of action be primarily strength or endurance focused? The answer is obvious, but here’s the point; just because something isn’t ‘bad’ (strength training), doesn’t mean it should form a significant portion of your plan (to run a marathon). In other words, you must start with the long-term aim and work backwards to build a plan of suitable parts. All simple, common sense stuff.
But what about in business, and in practice?
Here the entire landscape is more complex. Company performance, competitor activity and customer requirements can make deciding on a long-term aim (business goal) difficult. You need to be objective and possess high-level thinking capabilities. Determining a suitable plan of action is even more difficult. This requires expertise across all disciplines to come together, putting the business goal ahead of their own personal agendas (….right?!). And using the marathon example again, there is an innate pressure in business to do everything ‘good’. Every new customer, every advertising channel, every new HR buzz initiative; the day-to-day pressure to deliver everything is very real and very difficult to ignore.
Saying no to things that seem positive feels counterintuitive; but it is the single most important behaviour for organisations wanting to be strategic.
Then we move past strategy design (goal and plan) to delivery (execution). Whether it is in one’s personal life or business life, this is where ‘difficult’ can descend into feeling impossible. Why is that? Because delivery requires discipline. ‘Delivery’ requires strength to avoid short-term temptation, focus to avoid distractions along the way, and belief to stay committed to the overall aim even when times get tough. As human beings? This is not a strength. When considering our own businesses? Even tougher.
But with a growth strategy partner driving the project? Well that could be a game changer . . .