Go ahead: Ask any ten people how they define “strategy”. I did this recently, while teaching strategic thinking skills to a client’s group of emerging leaders.
As with any group of people, their answers included many of the right ideas, but few gave complete answers. More importantly, ALL of the answers related to a standard definition of strategy, something like this:
“A strategy is the best approach to achieve a desired outcome.”
That’s a solid definition. Although it’s mundane, it has three strong features:
Intention – A strategy isn’t a strategy unless it’s developed with the purpose of doing so. That rules out approaches that were adopted by default or other haphazard means that somehow achieve an outcome in hindsight. In terms of a business scenario: Doug runs a bakery. One day, he puts a new doughnut on display. It becomes wildly popular and his pastry sales rise by 20 percent. In this case, putting a new doughnut on display was not a strategy, because Doug did it unwittingly, with no purpose in mind.
Choice – A strategy can’t be a good strategy unless it’s been chosen above other options. This implies someone carefully identifies alternative strategies and chooses the best one according to some criteria. For the bakery, Doug could consider multiple strategies for increasing pastry sales. Putting out a new doughnut product would be one option among many, and he would evaluate his strategy options against criteria such as cost, feasibility, competitiveness, and appeal to customers.
Results – A strategy isn’t a valid strategy unless it helps to achieve the outcome it was designed to achieve. Like intention, this aspect of strategy disqualifies means and methods that lead to accidental outcomes. Back at the bakery, Doug may have picked the new doughnut as his preferred strategy for increasing pastry sales, but it would be a failed strategy for this purpose if it resulted in a different outcome, such as improving coffee sales instead.
Despite these strengths, the standard definition of strategy may not inspire creative strategies. To achieve that outcome, I use a more provocative definition:
“A strategy is an approach that delivers far better results than the situation seems to allow.”
Now that’s exciting! This definition changes the strategy game from mundane to magic, from utilitarian to creative.
The idea of overcoming the odds is exactly what we admire about brilliant strategies in military history, political maneuvering, and business dealings. For example, when Barack Obama first campaigned for the Presidency of the United States, his campaign innovation was a social media strategy that rallied younger voters across a wide voting spectrum. This highly effective strategy helped to secure his candidacy and his presidency, an unexpected outcome for a relatively unknown senator from Illinois.
In strategy and business planning, I use both definitions of strategy. The first provides a strong foundation for the strategic planning process, while the more provocative definition inspires unique strategies that can deliver exceptional results for your organization.