Does your organization have a strategy? Do you know what it is? Does everyone feel a sense of ownership over executing that strategy? In far too many organizations, the answer to those questions is “no.”

It makes me so sad how few people have experienced the power of a great strategy. It makes me really angry when I see leaders passing off something as a strategy that is no such thing. And you know me, when I get mad and sad, I get writing.

In this case, I’m spilling my strategic planning process (at least at a high-level) in hopes that you can get strategy working for you (even if it’s only building a strategy for your team.)

I’m dividing this into two parts. The first part is “What is a strategy and how do I get one?” The second part is “What are the two things I should do with my new strategy?” Stay with me. I’m ranting. Let me know if you think this is worth ranting about.

Part I: What is Strategy and How Do I Get One?

I find the succinct HBR article by Michael D. Watkins useful in defining strategy and putting it in the context of the various other terms in the business planning constellation.

Watkins defines strategy as:

“A set of guiding principles that, when communicated and adopted in the organization, generates a desired pattern of decision making.”

Let me highlight the good bit: Strategy is guiding principles. A strategy is NOT, as many people seem to believe:

  • A vision (as in “our strategy is to make a world where no child goes hungry”)
  • A mission (as in “our strategy is to make cycling the primary mode of transportation”)
  • A goal (as in the unhelpful statement “our strategy is to reach 1,000,000 users”)

Vision is your why. Why do we work our butts off in this organization? Why is it worth it? Why can’t we give up? Visions are great (well, to be fair, some are great, and some are completely lame). Having a sense of purpose works for people. Develop a vision statement. Just don’t call it your strategy.

Mission statements, goals, objectives, and BHAGs (to use Jim Collin’s catchy acronym for Big Hairy Audacious Goals) are your what. They’re fantastic, they’re super important, you need them. What do we have to achieve? What will we have accomplished if we’re successful? Please, craft a mission and create clear and compelling goals. Just DON’T CALL THEM YOUR STRATEGY!!!

Getting to Your Strategy

If having read this, you realize you don’t have a strategy, I’ve got you. Here’s the handy-dandy process I use to get a team from a blank piece of paper to strategy on a page. (If you are feeling good about your strategy, jump down to Part II.)

Step 1: Purpose

Start with the purpose of the organization (or department, or team). Why do you exist? Be fussy, don’t let anyone slip anything on the list if you wouldn’t make seriously difficult trade-offs to protect that purpose. (I’m realizing that I could write a post about each of these steps. Let me know if that would be useful.)

Step 2: Goals

Move to the goals. What do you need to achieve by the end of the strategy period to know that you’ve made enough progress? Again, only primary goals make it to this list. Anything “nice to have” doesn’t make the cut. Don’t have one goal about profitability and one about employee engagement if you will always trade engagement for profitability. Seriously. I really hate that. It’s so demoralizing to see leaders paying lip service to issues. If employee engagement is just a means to an end, that’s ok, just be transparent about it. If both profitability and engagement are primary and each will win some battles, then having both is fine.

Together, I call the purpose and the goals the North Star. I like using the north star because some will find the purpose the most compelling while others will find the goals more motivational. This way, when you refer to the North Star, your people envision whichever is most meaningful to them. (Many, many people have told me how their leaders use a revenue number as a rallying cry and that it leaves them cold.) Everyone in the organization should be walking toward your north star. Refer to it relentlessly.

Step 3: External Context

Next, lift your eyes to the horizon and look at all the trends emerging in the external world. Which of these trends creates opportunities and which creates threats for you? Build your list with as much input and diverse thinking as possible. Do NOT allow people to include characteristics of your organization on this list. Someone will try to talk about your lack of offices in the Midwest as a threat. It’s not a threat, it’s a weakness. The call is coming from inside the house. Step 3 is for external trends only.

Step 4: Internal Assessment

Now, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your team, department, or organization and determine where you have strengths that will help you capitalize on opportunities or mitigate threats. Then put on your objective, skeptical hat and get deep into the weaknesses of your organization that might exacerbate the threats or make it challenging to capitalize on the opportunities.

Step 5: Focus Areas

Combine the outputs of #3 and #4 into a list of the most important issues facing you (again, this could be for your team, your department, or your whole organization). How does the SWOT analysis help you see the issues you must solve if you’re to be successful?

For example, if you’re the group from the example above with the mission to get people commuting on bikes, you’re looking at the opportunities created by Covid where people are avoiding public transit. You’ve got a window where there’s less traffic on the roads and more opportunity to do construction. You know infrastructure spending is likely to be a major pillar of economic recovery and you have an a-ha moment about needing to capitalize on this situation to get more bike lanes that will make people feel safer riding. You put that together with your weak relationships and connections in municipal government and realize you have got to get busy with building out a team, and skills, and partnerships, and campaigns in infrastructure advocacy.

Step 6: Strategic Imperatives

That list in #5 should include a variety of different issues, some focused externally on growth, competitiveness, and value for customers, some focused internally on efficiency or effectiveness. It’s from that list that your strategy will emerge in a set of Strategic Imperatives (my name for the singular unit of a strategy). It’s a bit of a struggle but fight for it. What are the four, maybe five things you MUST do if you’re to be successful?

My all-time favorite strategic imperative was from a tech company that realized that they didn’t have the resources to go head-to-head with the #1 player in the market and that they’d have to gain momentum by innovating in niches. Their imperative was “Be Cool.” It guided the types of products they developed (computer animation and gaming versus boring old desktops), the marketing deals they did, the way they ran events, the people they networked with… it changed the way they interacted with the world.

There you go, now you have a strategy!

Part II: Now That I Have a Strategy What Can I Do with It?

As the title of this post suggests, there are two different uses for your strategy. Both are important, though the second is much less common and represents the greatest lost opportunity. The one that makes me mad at leaders and sad for employees.

Step 7: Projects

The first purpose of a strategy is to help direct the resources of the organization into a set of strategic projects. I’m not going to go into that process here, but there is a set of simple steps for defining the projects that would make you “More Cool” or help your cycling group “Advocate for Infrastructure.” You won’t be surprised that I am highly opinionated on what makes for good or bad strategic projects, but that’s for another day.

The only thing I ask here is that when you’re finished scoping out all these awesome projects that you NOT default to referring to them as your strategy. They aren’t your strategy; they are merely the tactics you will use to implement your strategy.

Why do I get so hot under the collar when leaders refer to tactics as a strategy? Because when you refer to your tactics as your strategy, the 90% of employees who aren’t working on one of those projects think they don’t have a role to play in executing the strategy and you rob them of the engagement that comes from making a meaningful contribution. Stop the steal! (Did I just say that? Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Step 8: Mobilize the Organization

The true magic of having your strategy so clearly articulated is that it becomes the mantra for everyone in your organization (or team, or department). Every day, every decision, every task can be viewed through the lens of your strategy.

If my organization needs to be cool to earn a place in the high-growth industries of the future, what can I do differently? If I’m a product designer, how does it change the features I’m focused on? If I’m in HR, how does it change the applicant pools I dip into? If I’m in marketing, and we need to be cool, how does it change the brand and its manifestation in target customer segments, campaigns, and customer events? If I’m in Finance…. well….ummm…come on…every theory has its limits!

This is the power of strategy! I feel like I should be writing in all caps right now. That’s how exciting, inspiring, and powerful it is when the strategy isn’t something created by busloads of condescending MBA consultants and executed by a dozen “hi-po’s” in head office. When you do it right, your strategy is something everyone understands, internalizes, and uses. It’s the set of guiding principles they use to decide which email to respond to first, which task to prioritize, what to emphasize in the customer call. When you get it right, strategy is everywhere.

Now ask yourself

Do we have a strategy, or do we have a vision or goals wrapped up in strategic language? Do we have work to do to get to a small set of guiding principles that will define how we use our resources? If so, get busy.

Once you can confidently say that you have a strategy, ask yourself if everyone in the organization can articulate that strategy. Are your imperatives simple, clear, and compelling? Are they relentlessly included in communications? Do you hear people using your imperatives in discussions? If not, start getting the word out.

If everyone is familiar with the strategies, do they know how they can use them to prioritize, make decisions, and guide their behavior every day? Are the fingerprints of your strategy all over departmental plans and individual’s performance objectives? If not, that’s where you need to dig in. (I’ve got an exercise for that if you’re interested).

Until you can answer yes to each of those questions, you don’t have a strategy working for you, and that makes me sad.

Further Reading

Strategy execution needs to be more inclusive

Are you helping or hindering with strategy? A Quiz

Why it’s hard to lead when times are good