Strategy–most leaders use the word, but do they understand it?
In the context of business, defining what “strategy” means can be difficult. Let’s imagine what it would (and would not) mean in a competition between teams racing to place a flag at the top of a mountain…
“Let’s get to the top of the mountain!”
- This is vision, but it isn’t a strategy.
“We’ll put all decisions to a vote!”
- This is not a strategy; it’s an aspect of a group’s culture.
“We’ll buy the most expensive climbing boots!”
- This the acquisition of technology, it’s still not a strategy.
“Let’s pack extra food!”
- This is not a strategy either; it is resource allocation.
“We’ll hire the best guides!”
- This is talent acquisition, but no, it is still not a strategy.
THIS is a strategy:
We will take the longest, but least steep route up the mountain. The biggest people on our team will carry more than their share of rations and equipment. We will not climb more than 8 hours a day until we ascend to 15,000 feet, at which point those who have been carrying the extra equipment and rations will transfer only the most necessary items and rations to the other half of the team. Those who carried the extra supplies and gear will turn back and begin descending back to base camp. The remaining group will take the flag and begin the final ascent as rapidly as possible.
A strategy is a unique, coherent, and flexible plan that, given the available resources, limitations, and forces outside of the team’s control, will enable the team to reach its goal before anyone else does.
Let’s break that definition apart and inspect it more carefully.
Strategy is a plan.
It is a thoughtfully created series of events that you will affect or set in motion. It is not a vision you hope to attain. It’s not a special product or technology that you will procure or design. It is not an extraordinary person you will hire or contract. If your “strategy” revolves around these things, you will lose.
Strategy acknowledges forces beyond your control.
The rules of the competition prevent the climbing team from taking a helicopter to the peak. The topography is beyond their control. So is the weather. So is the season. So are the other teams racing to the top. True strategy acknowledges and responds to these forces outside of our control.
Strategy is unique.
The team must do things differently than its competitors – otherwise all the teams will arrive at the peak at the same time, or victory will be left up to nothing more than chance.
Strategy is coherent.
The individual actions, methods, and decisions must fit into and work towards the overall strategy. The technology the team will use, the individuals included in the team, and how resources are allocated must agree with the logic of the entire strategy. For example, if half the team is planning to turn back at 15k feet, then the amount of provisions packed should reflect this.
Strategy is flexible.
Not every single step is planned. The major waypoints, methods, and objectives are agreed on, but not “set in stone.” A strategy must allow for adaptation to a changing environment and new information.
Strategy implies tradeoffs.
Every strategic plan has a cost or a clear trade-off. Fewer people and supplies will give the team more speed, but make the journey more risky. The more money spent on gear, the less money available for food and personnel.
Whether you’re racing to the top of a mountain, or leading a company towards a financial goal, you need a plan. If you’re not a brilliant strategist, can you still be a great leader? Certainly. Great strategists can be hired, or perhaps there are a couple of individuals in your organization that are strategic thinkers just waiting to be recognized. The important thing for you, as a leader, is to value strategic thinking enough to make sure that it gets done and that everyone on the team sticks with the plan.