What makes something a strategy?
It’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in business, but when pressed to define it, many smart people get it all wrong.
Most will say it’s a systematic action plan focused on solving problems and achieving goals
This definition not only misses the mark, it often leads us to pursue disparate paths that usually stall and complicate our desired outcomes.
The truth is, when people forge ahead with what they believe to be a strategy, they’re usually doing some form of strategic planning instead.
To help, this article defines and demystifies what makes a strategy.
What is strategy?
Contrary to popular belief, a strategy is not a plan or a set of tactics.
A strategy is a framework for making business decisions that inform plans and tactics. These decisions range from high-level choices like “How will we differentiate ourselves from competitors?” to operational realities like “How will we hire and onboard new talent?”
When faced with questions like these, our first response is usually to start listing every activity or consideration needed to complete either task. But the process of brainstorming around “the how” isn’t building a strategy—it’s planning.
A strategy doesn’t concern itself with the details surrounding execution. A strategy establishes how an organization or individual team plans to win the game.
With a strategy in place, an organization ensures that each of its teams aligns around cohesive plans that work in support of big picture business objectives.
Why strategy matters
The risks of not having a strategy are apparent for anyone who’s ever worked at a company where decision-making seemed arbitrary.
Without a framework to guide its decisions, an organization and its teams usually:
- Change directions without much thought or explanation
- Run in too many directions to be successful or efficient
- Struggle to justify time spent vs. outcomes achieved
Making matters worse, a lack of organizational strategy often leads to dips in morale when KPIs aren’t met due to whimsical decision-making and a pattern of pivots.
Why some companies don’t have one
A lack of strategy is sometimes the fault of department managers, but it’s usually a top-down problem. Organizations that function without a strategy tend to struggle with:
- Market uncertainty: Having a firm grasp on the market and where your company fits within it may be something co-founders and executives ponder, but this level of analysis shouldn’t end in the C-suite. People at all levels in an organization need to know how and why the company will pursue growth to inform individual and team decision-making.
- No clear purpose: For some organizations, the chief operating goal is growth. While growth is inextricably linked to running a successful business, as a goal, it’s not particularly interesting or descriptive. Having a strategy means establishing what the organization will do to deliver value and defining which core competencies it needs to be successful.
- Fear of failure: When companies become preoccupied with choosing the wrong path, it’s usually because they don’t have a strategy to inform their decisions. This can lead to a series of “what ifs” that limit innovation and tend to favor whatever seems like the safest choice—even if it isn’t the best one.
How to approach building a sound strategy
There are many ways to approach building a strategy, but all sound strategies share a few common characteristics.
If a newly hired content marketing manager needed to create a strategy, for example, a good one might:
Start with analysis
From looking at competitor content to performing an internal content audit, a sound strategy starts with an assessment of what is and isn’t working.
In the process of analysis, you’re likely to encounter patterns that form mental connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. Our content marketing manager might notice that a competitor with an engaged social audience doesn’t seem to rely very much on SEO. This would enable the strategist to challenge the status quo by suggesting other routes to attracting an audience.
Establish a vision
As an analysis gradually becomes a hypothesis, a good strategy turns into a vision. This is the stage where you move beyond questions to form statements.
A question like “Could we build our content calendar around the goal of engaging people on social media?” becomes something more like “We’ll become the leading company voice on LinkedIn in our industry.”
It might sound grand, but developing a strategic vision like this arms an organization with a clear path that makes it easy to disregard anything that doesn’t serve the strategy. It also helps a strategist to test their hypotheses against their chosen tactics.