Strategy, like synergy and sex, begets its legions of proclaimed experts. The Harvard Business Review calls its cartoon, Strategic Humor. Strategy can also be beguilingly easy to for an intrepid observer to call out as such. However, strategic choices, or the lack of one, are universally cited among the primary reasons for downfall of modern day corporate warriors – the CEOs and their teams. A big part of the problem lies in a lack of understanding what strategy is, and what it is not.
Internalizing the concept of strategy is made difficult because of the inherent indefiniteness of the term – countless definitions of strategy exist that may all be true, and yet have enough minute differences among them to confuse the learner.
The purpose of this post is not to add yet another definition to the lexicon. Rather, it is to bring to fore the various dimensions of strategy as a concept, with the hope that the reader by the end of this post will have a sharpened skill to identify a strategy, from what purports to be one.
To begin with, strategy is nearly always about winning against an adversary – an enemy, a competitor, or when we speak of communications, distractions and contradicting persuasions in the minds of targeted recipient. Strategy helps you win the war and take the spoils home – whether the battleground is physical, in business, or in a person’s mind.
Strategy is also always about a long term, decisive win – a battle that is won and lost cyclically every day, every quarter or every year points to a poor strategy, or lack of one. In business management, strategy therefore concerns itself with a long period of above average business growth and corresponding increase in share of profits. A business that has cornered most of the profits of its industry has demonstrated a winning strategy. In communications, a winning strategy ought to deliver a near-permanent receptiveness and openness to listen to, and respond to the communicator’s messages.
Strategy is always unique; it is identified and selected for every war, market and communication situation. Formulating strategy calls for a thorough and painstaking examination of external environment, the potential moves of the opposition, and internal capabilities. The term selection implies that strategy itself is the choice of one alternative among many others available.
One way to identify strategy is by placing the expected outcome of a decision on a time continuum. A strategic decision with long-term implications or benefits would be on one end of the continuum, and tactical or operational would find placement on the other end.
Strategy is about taking your limited resources – resources are always scarce – and applying them to a unique and distinct alternative for a win, or long-term advantage. Time and money are prime examples of resources. Because strategy involves choosing one alternative over another, it involves trade-offs. One of the side effects of the visible trade-offs involved in selecting a strategy is the natural human tendency to minimize them; therefore the temptation to embrace two or more distinct alternatives together. A strategy that mixes two or more distinct strategies of competitors is no strategy – it is just a coagulated mess of actions that may yield short-term tactical gain, but can never beget long-term advantage.
Strategy can be emergent or deliberate. An emergent strategy is borne out of a stream of tactical actions and is therefore more dynamic as a consequence. A deliberate strategy calls of planning and analyzing the situation and demands a long-term commitment. Neither approach to strategy can be termed universally superior than the other, for it often depends on situation and resources at hand.
One can see any number of practical examples in business of big corporations running global operations without a clear winning strategy. Again, by winning strategy we mean an unquestionable win in the marketplace – characterized by a lion’s share of the industry profits.
It therefore follows that while a strategy is absolutely vital to win in a zero sum game that is a war – corporate or otherwise, a lack of it does not necessarily lead to failure. It would just mean a sub-optimal realization of goals – lesser profits in case of a business and lesser audience receptiveness in case of a communicator. And as it turns out, a large number of organizations can live happily with that.