Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?

That is the title of a full article in HBR this month and it absolutely caught my attention. Think about it: if someone says, "So, what’s your strategy this year?" how would you answer? Would you forward them a PDF of your 39-page strategic plan?

Then again, who does those old-fashioned 39-page plans any more, right? You brought the consultant in who promised you a "living document." So, without looking at the document, can you answer the question above? I like the idea of a "living document," but just to be clear, it only lives through the actions and interactions among human beings, because, in fact, only the humans are alive—not the document.

So if you and the other humans in your organization can’t have quick, clear, and easy conversations about strategy, then I guarantee the document will be dead. As the HBR authors point out, people who rely too much on plans…

…fail to appreciate the necessity of having a simple, clear, succinct strategy statement that everyone can internalize and use as a guiding light for making difficult choices.

Their solution? Create a well-crafted strategy statement. This is below mission, values, and vision, and it has three pieces: an objective (ends), a scope (domain), and advantage (means).

I like the objective part, because they stress that it should be specific, rather than a platitude. For associations, for example, serving members and developing the field is not a strategic objective (that would be more mission according to this article). Think about it: if there is a competing association in your space, they will also want to serve members and develop the field. That doesn’t answer the question, what is your strategy?

The question I come to most often is, what will truly drive your success in the coming year or so? If everyone in your organization has a clear understanding of that, you’ll have a better sense of what to do or what not to do and where to place your attention.

I also like the advantage part, because it also gets at the "what drives success" question: why are YOU going to succeed? What is your competitive advantage? The authors get fairly "consultanty" by then talking about creating a value proposition chart, but I think the essence is simple: there has to be something you do that others don’t or can’t or won’t that is part of your success. Understanding what that is is so important. It’s not just about more effective execution.

By the time I got to the end of the article, I was a little disappointed at the level of business jargon. What started as a very clear question (what is your strategy?), ended up as a "strategy statement circulated throughout the company, with the value proposition chart and activity-system map attached." If that works for you, fine. But don’t go there too quickly. You need the clarity and the understanding first, then you need to actually make choices and do things (and learn from that). That’s strategy. The statement and the accompanying charts can come later.


  1. 02.04.2008 at 7:11 am

    All projects should have a one page mission statement. Strategy projects are no different.