Why Strategy Needs Work

I read a blog recently from the always thought provoking Martin Weigel entitled ‘Strategy needs good words’ which made me think about the current state of strategy.
I fully agree that good words are important and the use of them a skill that appears to be in decline.  But what struck me was that before crafting the words, we need to think and craft the thinking we are trying to express. 

There are too many decks, too much waffle, too much jargon, too many fancy graphics and not enough actual thinking. The need to appear clever and to justify our job titles and consultancy fees seems to have overtaken the need to think and express oneself clearly.

Almost everything is made to seem more important by prefacing it with the word ‘strategic’ – a job, a plan, a meeting. But, whilst the word is used freely, much of what it is attached to is anything but strategic:

  • A Purpose/Vision/Mission is not a strategy
  • A story is not a strategy
  • ‘Growth’ is not a strategy
  • A laundry list of desirable outcomes is not a strategy

This is not to say that these things are not valid and important, just that they are not strategy.  Strategy is less about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ and more about the ‘how’ – how and where to focus and how to co-ordinate effort and resources to get to where we want to be, or to overcome the challenges we face. More importantly (and often more problematically), strategy is about deciding what not to do, where not to focus resources. It’s about problem solving, not just goal setting. Strategy is fundamentally about how we realise our vision, grow, tell our story, hit our ROI etc.

So whilst I agree that crafting strategic narrative is important, the first step must be to craft the strategy itself.

This takes work and time for which some seem not to have patience. I shake my head (well I would, wouldn’t I) when I hear things like ‘we don’t have time’ or ‘our industry moves too fast’ for strategy. In a recent study PwC found that “only 37% of respondents say their company has a well-defined strategy – a clear sense of where it’s heading”. The study identifies three issues:

  • a belief that disruption means strategy is an unaffordable luxury,
  • the pressure to deliver short term performance
  • a belief that ‘doing’ is more valuable than ‘thinking’.

I also come across clients who have something called a ‘strategy’, but aren’t able to execute it. The reality is that without a strategy that is grounded in the reality of what your business faces, that your people understand, and that you know how to and are able to execute, you are condemned to reacting to change created by others, rather than being able to shape change to your advantage.

I believe that in volatile times, strategy is more rather than less important. Clayton Christensen observes that many business leaders are so anxious to act, to do, that they don’t have time to question just what it is they are doing.  But without having asked these questions, without knowing what it will take for your business to be sustainable and resilient, without knowing what your source of competitive advantage is or will be, and without having done the work to answer these questions in terms of what you focus on and what you don’t, you are at the mercy of the wind and the waves of change with no means of navigation.

So yes, words are important, ideally not too many, used in a way that communicate clearly and simply, and without unnecessary jargon. But the work must come before the words.

Kate Smith is former National Strategic Planning Director at Saatchi & Saatchi NZ and now runs a business and brand strategy consultancy based in Queenstown, New Zealand.

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