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8 Things People Get Wrong About Strategy

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Strategy is the Emperor’s New Clothes of the working world. It’s one of those buzzwords that lost much of it’s meaning in the 1980s, but people need to keep using, whether they understand it or not.

Once you reach a certain seniority, people assume you know what strategy is all about, despite the fact you’ve unlikely to have been taught. This is how we wind up in meeting rooms with people clearing their throats and saying things like “The initiatives in the action plan are blue-sky vision statements for the future state…

And rather than sticking our hand up to say “… wtf?” most people nod sagely and try to keep the blank look off their face, rather than admit they have no idea what’s going on.

A lack of strategy education leads to the development of misguided and lengthy documents that jump straight from a big-picture ‘why’ to a detailed ‘what’. These documents then gather dust on the bookshelf, because as soon as things change, they become irrelevant.

This is a damn shame, because a well-crafted strategy is a potent force in the face of change. In an ideal world, your strategic plan is referenced daily, as an invaluable tool for the ‘how’. Teams and leaders draw on it as a reassuring guide to make decisions and shape choices as everything shifts around them, keeping everyone on track to make the change we want to see in the world.

With that in mind - here’s 8 common myths about strategy, and a few ways to think differently.

Myth 1: Strategy is about what to do now

Truth: Strategy is not about the short-term. It’s about using our clarity on the long-game (what we stand for, and the change we want to make in the world) to plan for the medium term. Strategy guides the steps we take along the way, but it doesn’t spell them out. In fact, good strategy is more worried about what we don’t do - the trade-offs we’re willing to make, and the things we’re willing to cancel - while we take steps toward the new. If you can achieve your strategy in the next 6-12 months, it’s not a strategy. It’s a plan.

Myth 2: Strategy is about making plans

Truth: On that note - strategic planning is not about plans (I know! It’s in the name!) It’s about principles. When we create a strategy, we do it on the assumption that we don’t know what’s going to change, or what kind of decisions we’ll be forced to make along the way. Instead of compiling detailed tables of actions with unreasonable timelines we feel bad for missing, strategy is more concerned with criteria. What good looks like, what matters most to us, and how we will make choices. When we know this ahead of time, we find it easier to make strategic decisions as we go.

Myth 3: Strategy is about prescription

Truth: Strategy trusts the people that will make decisions about it’s implementation. Instead of prescription, it offers direction - about where we’re heading and the key levers we’ll pull to get there. When we know, for example, that we’re focused on leverage, we enable people to design projects and programmes to be repeatable and reach more people, in ways that suit their environment at the time. They will refer to your strategy for the criteria we discuss in Myth 2 (key outcomes, values and priorities), to decide how to shape those choices and how much effort to invest - but not for instruction about exactly what that will look like.

Myth 4: Strategy should be detailed

Truth: Strategy should be as concise as possible, and you should be able to sum up the key messages in the time it takes to travel 3 floors in a lift. If you can’t explain it simply, you either don’t understand it, or you’ve put too much in - in which case, it isn’t a strategy at all, it’s a list. Strategy demands focus on the most critical things we need to shift to get where we’re going. Aiming for fullness will dilute and nullify your effort. Force prioritisation through ranking or weighting, and keep your language plain, snappy and clear.

Myth 5: Strategy should describe the past

Truth: If you’re spending your time focusing on statistics, context and data in your strategy, you’re wasting space. Strategy isn’t about the past. It might draw on that information to form your view, but it only talks about the future. We use everything we know in the present to set direction for where we’re going next, and to plot our path there. If you’ve got a whole section on ‘trends and issues’ - cut it out. No-one’s reading it anyway. I don’t want to know where you’ve been. I want to know where you’re going, what strengths you’re drawing on to get there, and what gaps you’re filling to make it possible.

Myth 6: Strategy needs prediction

Truth: While strategy is all about the future, it doesn’t try to predict what’s coming. There’s plenty of futurists and economists who will try to do that for you - but they’ll all tell you something different, and if research is to be believed, they generally do worse than a bunch of chimps pointing randomly at signs on a wall. Scenario planning is useful, but we shouldn’t assume we know which scenario is most probable, or that we can cover all our bases. Instead, strategy should focus on how we will respond if those things do happen, so that we’re prepared for the worst.

Myth 7: Strategy should be accurate

Truth: We don’t know the truth. We’re running around full of assumptions, bias and righteousness, and we’re usually a bit off the mark. Even if we are right, facts don’t convince people to seize hold of a new and exciting direction. Instead of accuracy, strategy aims for ownership. A direction that everyone buys into and gets moving toward - that’s slightly wrong and needs tweaking - will beat a perfect plan that no-one cares about, every time. Things actually happen, when you’ve got people on board!

Myth 8: Strategy needs agreement

Truth: While we do need ownership, we don’t need everyone to agree. What we want instead is alignment - which is more about productive disagreement. When we’ve been honest about all of the competing positions, agendas and ideas out there, we can line those up in a way that strike at the core of our strategy - purpose, values and narratives. We don’t need everyone to agree - that’s usually a sign we’ve lost diversity - but we do need people aligned on what our most important priorities are. Read more about how to do this with difficult groups here.