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3 things strategy is not

3 min read


Do you know what your organization’s strategy is? Do you really know?

Strategy is a cloudy word, overused, misused, and full of misconceptions about what exactly a solid strategy consists of. Leaders retreat for days or weeks to develop a strategic plan, then announce something few in the organization can remember and fewer still understand. Every leader wants to develop a clear and effective strategy. To do this, we first need to cover what strategy is not.

Here are there things strategy isn’t.

  1. Vision. Casting a vision to an organization is a significant element of leadership, but vision is not strategy. Announcing lofty ideals — “to be the biggest supplier in our chosen market” — sounds great but without a clear description of how to be the biggest and a series of objectives to measure progress, your leadership still lacks strategy. Developing a vision can be very useful in the process of creating a strategy, but it must be coupled with a solid analysis of where the organization currently is, and how it could most effectively move from its current position to the envisioned one.
  2. Planning. I’m not sure how the word planning first got coupled with the word strategy, but today most organizations cite the need for “strategic planning” and then proceed to set a list of objectives for the coming fiscal year with an attached budget for each department based on the objectives. As more companies felt the squeeze of the recession, the strategic planning process seemed to simply add objectives of 5% or 10% more revenue than last year, with a 4% increase in budgets. But strategy is more like choosing than planning. Making a strategy involves a set of deliberate choices that, taken together, create a sustainable competitive advantage in the given industry.
  3. Marketing. When you first begin to understand elements of strategy like market position, it can become too easy to combine strategy and marketing. If strategy is merely deciding where a product or service will be positioned in the market and then communicating that position to customers, isn’t that just marketing? The truth is there are far more choices involved in creating strategy than just market position. It’s not enough to tell the world that “low-cost provider is our strategy.” In that case, every element of the supply chain needs to be managed properly to reduce costs as much as possible. Choosing a market position is important, but there are plenty of other choices to make before a strategy emerges.

There are more misconceptions about strategy, but these three culprits seem to be the most often confused. If you’re involved in developing a strategy for your organization, take a hard look at what you’re offering and make sure you’re not calling your strategy something it isn’t.

David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is founder of LDRLB and the author of “The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.”