Why I hate talking about strategy

What the hell does “strategy” mean?

But before I open that can of worms, let me back up a few years.

When I was consulting, I once worked with a Partner who was totally obsessed with language. He cared deeply about what words we used, how we used them, and the meanings that we collectively gave to them. Our team would collectively eye roll as he asserted that we needed a “glossary” of sorts to kick off conversations with the client for the 100th time. “Let’s be clear,” he would start, and we would all groan (on the inside, of course).

Michael, if you’re reading this, trust me that this is all leading up to a tremendous compliment.

These days, I am convinced that 90% of disagreements lie with our assumptions about what certain words mean.

Most of this change in perspective is caused by seeing three start-ups up close (one had great definitions, one had bad definitions, one had no definitions). But the latest round of elections has me thinking about it too (think: what do you mean when you say, “fair,” “equal playing field,” or “classified”?)

Believe it or not, some of the most confusing, roundabout, never-ending discussions I’ve been a part of have been about a fundamental misunderstanding about how different people define “customer” (since when? what if their credit card failed? what if the item was returned? what if they’ve since closed their account?). The same confusion is true for phrases like “user,” “active”, “churned,” “converted,” or “on a break.” The last one is a mediocre Friends joke, by the way. In any case, it turns out Michael was right all along.

Getting ahead of these definitional debates is critical to keep us sane, de-personalize our political debates, and keep business moving forward. It’s also critical to monitor how definitions need to change. In business, when we ignore terms we end up with metrics that are useless — massaged just in time for board meetings, but fundamentally meaningless to the business.

When we are thoughtful about what we say and mean, our conversations become scalable. Employees begin speaking in a sort of shorthand that, rather than being jargon, has clear and well-designed meaning.

Nowhere is this issue more painful than when I have to talk about strategy. I worked at a “strategy consulting firm” and took a class at HBS called “Strategy,” and I still don’t have anything close to a digestible definition for the word.

I’m writing this post not because I want to show off a new and compelling definition; I’m writing it to give importance to definitions, highlight a definitional gap of mine, and ask for ideas: What are the best definitions you’ve heard for strategy? Are any of them exhaustive? Has your business ever set aside time to write its own definition of the word?