Defining Strategy

This week was largely spent designing a strategy workshop for an ongoing client. The latter would have been much more straightforward if it were being delivered in person: as it is, I’ve been having to think how to adjust the format for online delivery. Part of that is designing the workshop around short, focused sessions with ample screen breaks. I’m also allowing for regular check-ins with the audience. In person, it’s generally possible to have a sense of the level of interest and focus in the room through watching body language and reactions, but that’s much harder on Zoom. So I’m building in prompts to explicitly ask participants if they’re happy with the material before proceeding, more so than I might if I could gauge a positive mood in the room.

One element that doesn’t change with the delivery medium is agreeing definitions upfront. I find the world strategy is particularly susceptible to the Inigo Montoya problem: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means’. So a key task is setting out a working definition, and then breaking it down into its component parts for discussion. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun, and most strategy definitions and frameworks are reformulations of the same underlying patterns—objective/scope/advantage, or ways/ends/means. Even if not wholly original, my personal working definition is:

Strategy is the determination and execution of choices, consistent with the contextculture and capabilities of the focal organisation, that meet success criteria in contested situations.

The assumptions behind this construction go like this:

  1. The most brilliantly conceived strategy is useless unless executed.
  2. Per Michael Porter, strategy is made up of deliberate choices and trade-offs.
  3. Strategy requires an understanding of consumers, markets, competitors, opportunities and threats.
  4. For the people who will deliver it to buy into it, strategy should be aligned with the mission, vision and values of the organisation.
  5. There’s no point making a strategy without the resources to deliver it—or a credible plan to acquire them.
  6. Everyone involved should have a shared and specific understanding of what success looks like.
  7. If there’s nothing trying to stop you doing something, you need a plan, not a strategy.

Comments, questions and criticism of the above very welcome.

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