Strategy – Probably the Most Overused and Misunderstood Word in Business
How many times have you heard someone talk about successful business strategies or ‘taking a strategic approach’? What do you think they actually mean by the use of the word strategy? Most often the people using it are trying to convey the fact that they have given the subject a bit more thought than usual, that they have looked a little further ahead than normal. If a consultant uses it be very wary. Strategy costs more than mere ideas or tactics. How much would you pay for consultants who have’ kicked around a few ideas’ or ‘come up with some tactics they think might work’. Depends how good they are. But if they come back with ‘strategic business advice’ you expect it to be very good and of course very expensive.
Why expensive? Because you would hope that a consultant or colleague would have used some kind of intellectually robust framework, that they would have tested their assumptions and developed more than one solution which they evaluate rigorously before making their strategic recommendation. This takes time and expertise and both are expensive. Let’s assume they have done all of this – does that make it strategic business advice rather than tactical advice?
Not according the dictionary. The dictionary definition of strategy is very clear and military. It defines strategy as “the art of war – disposing troops etc in such a way as to impose upon the enemy the conditions for fighting (time and place) preferred by oneself”. If we accept business is in effect a war – you develop successful business strategies because you define success as beating the competition – there is no reason why this definition of the overused word, strategy, is not appropriate for business strategy. It requires all that planning and testing of assumptions discussed already. Some kind of robust intellectual and very honest framework will certainly help to develop and evaluate options. Even the lazy use of the word strategy – giving it a bit more thought and thinking ahead – would be implied by the military, dictionary definition. But there is an extra dimension to real strategy. It requires you to do all this and come up with something that changes the rules in your favour – in other words it requires creativity.
And there is one other aspect to this more demanding kind of strategic thinking. It is about people and their behaviour. In order to ‘deploy the troops’ and change the rules you have to understand how people tick. If being creative involves changing behaviours then you have understand how those behaviours were formed in the first place and how they might be changed if you want a successful business strategy.
Before putting the dictionary away (the definition of strategy above was taken from the Oxford English Dictionary) just go forward to tactics. You will discover that the definition is exactly the same as for strategy with one addition. Tactics involves the all-important stage of implementation, putting the strategy into practice. So it turns out that far from tactics being less weighty and valuable than strategy they are actually the most valuable thing of all. A sound strategic plan that is successfully implemented includes, indeed demands, tactics.
The use, and overuse, of strategy in business is more often than not pretentious over-claim by people who do not really understand what they are talking about. It certainly does not mean giving something a bit more thought or thinking a bit more long term. It absolutely demands a thorough and honest assessment of your assumptions and your options. At the risk of being melodramatic, sloppy thinking in military strategy costs people their lives. In business it just wastes time and money. Strategic thinkers will of course use frameworks based on their experience. They will break a problem down so they can think about each component of it but they will look to change the rules not just apply them. And the true strategist understands that strategies are aimed at people and changing their behaviour. Their strategic business advice will be based on an understanding of human behaviour. Just as in war, a strategy does not just get the job done, it enables you to beat the competition, to deliver higher returns than ever before, to win and win big for the least expenditure of resources.
So whether you are undertaking a brand planning strategy, a new business launch strategy or any other kind of strategy remember what this really means and remember to include the tactics which are just if not more important. Then you can charge accordingly.