Before the 1960s the word “strategy” was rarely uttered in business, reserved more for discussions about diplomacy and the battlefield than the boardroom.
Today, of course, the word strategy is ubiquitous in business, particularly in professional services. "Entrepreneur" publishes pieces suggesting or encouraging choices -- strategy -- every day. Many of these are useful articles, some of which sought to identify the role of strategy and the delineation between execution, or more accurately, implementation. Other articles have measured the respective “strategic” and “tactical” skills of today’s business manager. All valuable subjects.
A more obvious problem must be solved for, however: the very definition of strategy. The word is prolific and routinely misused across industries, firms and functions. Strategy is something leaders or consultants offer as a service, or cite routinely, without understanding its meaning. At many professional services firms, just using the word passes for implementing the concept. Strategy has become a catchall that often and unwittingly conceals the fact that no (real) strategy exists.
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An obvious -- and particularly ironic -- example comes from my own industry, communications, where leaders are masters of language. The main Web pages of the 10 largest public relations and communications agencies all feature the word strategy, or some derivation thereof -- clearly being strategic is, in itself, something of which to be proud.
Yet at its core, strategy is nothing more than making smart choices. Over-reliance on the word shows poor understanding, but also insecurity about our professional selves; should we not be strategic every single business day in everything we do? Ideally, we choose to make a series of thoughtful decisions (strategy), then act on them (execution). Strategy is living and breathing; it is fluid and evolving. As such, anything dubbed “strategic” needs to be clarified. The word “strategy” is never in itself a final solution to any problem.
And in the context of professional services, strategy shouldn’t be an add-on we need to specify whenever we make a decision or plan a series of them, it should be inherent in every choice we make and every plan we design.
Perhaps the most actionable solution to the proper use of strategy in business parlance lies in defining what it is not. Here are four examples:
1. Strategy is not just getting the job done.
“Strategic execution” simply means “execution” -- because, after all, if you’re in the execution phase of a project, surely you should already be following a strategy. Consultant Michael Porter puts it better, saying that “there’s a fundamental distinction between strategy and operational effectiveness.”
2. Strategy isn’t just doing more.
Often, it means doing less. As Bob Shrum, Presidential campaign guru, once warned me “people in our business have a tendency to complicate common sense.” He was right. We throw in unnecessary processes, services that clients don’t need -- all in the name of strategy. Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter said strategy is fundamentally about choices: You can't be all things to all people.
3. Strategy isn’t just for planning, it is for life.
Big professional services firms are particular offenders here. They sign clients up, put them through strategic planning sessions for months or more before ever taking any meaningful action. The merits of that approach can be debated. But then they forget to keep thinking. Here Charles de Gaulle admonishes others to remember that strategy is about creating a plan. Strategic execution is about adapting: “You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.”
4. Strategy isn’t always exciting.
And that’s OK. In our industry, we love to shroud our craft of public relations in the secrecy of “strategic communications.” Again, let’s put clothes back on the emperor and acknowledge that strategy can be simple. Former Annenberg School Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson used to remind us relentlessly that “it’s the audience, stupid.” What she meant, of course, was that to be successful in communications, you constantly had to ask the most basic questions: who is my audience? What do I want them to think? And how to I get them to think it? Relatively basic stuff. Tough to call it strategic. And yet a fundamental building block in any industry.
In business, well beyond the example of my own of communications industry, words matter. Choices matter too. In the case of strategy, both the word, the choice and the action matters. Be truly strategic and limit your use of the word to the cases where it means something. Take confidence not in the word, but in the substance; in the quality of the thought, and the effectiveness of the action.