The Strategy Trap: Why Organisations Need to Talk Less and Do More

“All statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.” Malaclypse the Younger

by Jim Prior

Business strategy. Growth strategy. Brand strategy. Campaign strategy. It seems that strategy is everywhere and if you are sitting within a large organisation it is no doubt a very familiar term. Such large organisations are full of people conceiving strategies — from the C-suite, through divisional leadership, across product lines and functional areas. It seems that anyone with a business card needs one. No strategy, no significance, is the maxim by which organisations seem to live.

But many people touting the “strategy” word round organisations are doing quite the opposite of what it means. They are not making a plan of action designed to achieve a long term or overall aim (OED definition). They are, instead, creating conflicting priorities and unactionable theories that cause confusion, disputes and act as barriers to progress. More concerned with politics than progress, they tie up time and resources in discussions and debates from which the output is a presentation of statements of intent that, by the time they have been modified to reflect the views of all the stakeholders (many of whom have their own competing strategies to protect), are uselessly generic. Even if the statements are true for most people, they are entirely meaningless. It is unclear who, what or how they help, or what their consequence is. And that’s the problem with most strategy: no one knows what to do.

A business’s success isn’t determined by its strategy, it’s determined by what it actually does — products, service, markets, prices etc. — so for organisations that fall into this meaningless strategy trap the resulting lack of action is a major problem. It’s even more of a problem if the lack of a clear, guiding strategy leads to actions that are detrimental to the organisation, such as might have been true of certain banks in the recent past, for example. Customers don’t give a damn about your internal strategies, they care about what you are doing. Unless and until you get the executional details right, you are never going to achieve success.

So, it is my opinion that big business needs to re-think its approach to strategy. It needs to shift emphasis from multi-layered internal theorising to a more pragmatic focus on actually doing things. Organisations need to spend less time commissioning multiple project teams and consultants to write mission statements, vision statements, positioning statements, purpose statements and the like, at every divisional level, and spend more time commissioning people to create the tangible experiences of the brand that the customer engages with and which persuade them in evidential terms that the organisation is a success. Talk less, do much, much more.

This is not to say that strategy is not important. Quite the opposite: an action-oriented organisation needs a robust strategy firmly and absolutely at its core. But it has to be a strategy in the true definition of the word — a plan of action towards an overall aim. And there needs to be just one strategy, not many, with which everyone in the organisation is persuaded or obligated to align. Any plans that need to be made at divisional levels are not strategies, but tactics, and need to be consistent with the overall strategy and very specific in their nature. Most importantly, the organisation has to be focused on delivering the detail — the actions in the plan — and this needs to be prioritised, invested in, and rewarded, as one of the organisation’s primary functions.

By focusing time and resources on details rather than on strategy, an organisation gives itself more opportunities to succeed. An action-oriented environment encourages innovation and experimentation and thus yields more tangible reason for customers to engage. And because you do more, you can afford to fail on a few occasions, which is by now a well-proven formula for success. It’s no coincidence that this is how successful start-ups and entrepreneur-led businesses operate and it’s how Apple became the most valuable technology company in the world.

To achieve this state of action-orientation, organisations need to do more than just nod in agreement for there’s a significant cultural shift that needs to be made. Business leaders need to be disciplined and robust in defending the overall strategy and resist the inevitable complications that other people in the company will throw in. They need to rethink the competencies that they value most highly — pragmatists over procrastinators; doers at least alongside thinkers, for example. They need to gauge the success of senior people’s efforts not by what they say, but by what they have actually done. When I talk, as I have done in previous posts here, about how organisations need to be more creative, this is what I mean.

To summarise, here’s a five-point guide to avoiding the strategy trap:

  1. Strategy is the plan of action for how you will achieve a long-term aim, not simply a statement of that aim.
  2. Your plan must be credible, compelling and specific, not generic and inconsequential.
  3. There should just one strategy across the entire organisation, with the CEO as its champion — everything else is a tactic in support.
  4. Rolling out your strategy means implementing your of plan of action, not endlessly subdividing, re-interpreting and re-articulating the same or different aims.
  5. The key to the success of your strategy is the delivery of the actions — make creativity and innovation your priorities in every way.

Originally published in The Huffington Post