So you think you have a strategy?

Whatever variety of strategic planning you have been schooled in, and let’s face it you are spoilt for choice, my experience is that there is much more bad strategy out there than good. It is therefore easier to explain good strategy in terms of what it isn’t. There are three main offenders and unfortunately they often manifest themselves together.

Firstly Fluff. Fluff is any strategy statement that may initially sound impressive but reveals on closer inspection to have little or no substance. For example, “Our strategy is to broaden our business by strengthening our relationships with current customers and expand our offerings”. You can’t argue with that. It sounds like it would work for pretty much any business and therein lies the problem. Strategies should not be generic, they should be specific to your situation and your organisation.

Secondly a failure to diagnose and face the key challenges; if you cannot focus on the key issues then you will try to solve lots of non-key issues and you will use all of your limited resources working on too many things. I often refer to strategies that result from this failure as “dog’s dinners”, everything has been thrown in! Another undesirable consequence of this failure is selecting the wrong strategic objectives; it is not uncommon to see conflicting & contradictory strategies side by side. For example, a strategy to improve employee engagement sitting next to a strategy for off-shoring jobs. At least one and probably both of these is doomed if attempted together.

Finally, confusing targets with strategy. Often strategy will appear in this form, “Our strategy is to grow revenue by 20% each year”. Whilst this is a laudable statement of aspiration it is not good strategy. Is revenue growth the key issue for the organisation and more importantly how will this growth be achieved? Without specific plans to achieve the targets, this “strategy” is merely a “wish”.

Looking at the bad reveals that good strategy consists of three things:-

1. Identification of the key challenges: The Context.

2. Deciding on the correct response to those challenges: The Choices. Note that what you choose not to include or do is often just as important as what you do include.

3. Developing a plan (a set of coherent actions) to implement that response: The Execution.

For example, in order to be effective a Doctor must diagnose a patient’s condition correctly, decide on an appropriate treatment approach and then develop a specific implementation plan including a combination of surgery (perhaps), medication, diet, therapy etc. The plan must then be implemented and monitored for effectiveness and adjusted accordingly as required.

If any one of these three areas, context, choices and execution is overlooked or flawed, then the strategy will fail. Conversely when all three are present then the following results; you have much less (and a much simpler) strategy to execute and the execution process is therefore much more achievable.

References: Good Strategy, Bad Strategy; The difference and why it matters by Richard P. Rumelt

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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