Documents Are Not Strategy

Here's a quick lesson that I think needs some reinforcement: your strategy documents are not your strategy. I know that we all know this already, but looking at the behavior of so many organizations, I'm not so sure. We invest so much time and money in producing strategic documents that we hold onto them even if they turn out to be not particularly useful to the whole system.

The primary value of any kind of strategy process, from what I've seen, is in the strategic conversations they generate and the strategic insight that is generated in the conversations. We then try to take that and turn it into some sort of deliverable that we can share with everyone, partly because we genuinely need to share the insight across the system, but partly (let's be honest) because the consultant promised it in the proposal, or someone in charge needs something tangible to show someone even more in charge.

But I think we should hold onto these documents loosely. We should be prepared to trash them six months in if they aren't really sticking with people. We should stay close to the insight and keep having the conversations, because that's what will give you the most powerful documents and the most effective strategy. The documents are good; they are important. But they are not "it."


  1. Cathi Eifert, CAE
    13.01.2010 at 9:15 am

    Excellent post Jamie and one that we should all read. I have seen this too many times – thank you for putting it top of mind for us all.

  2. 13.01.2010 at 9:18 am

    Especially when the originally strategy is flawed, trying to stick to it and weave whatever you’re doing back to the original, flawed document is just…well, not a good idea.
    I don’t mean this as a slam on you at all–since you’re a consultant–but I think the part about investing so much time and money into strategic document creation is a big piece of this. If an organization hires a consultant to create a strategy–for many thousands of dollars–they are basically committing to that strategy for a period of time proportional to the outlay of money it took to fund its creation. So if an org pays $25k to have a strategy developed and that strategy turns out to be bad, it’s double-bad because that organization is not going to be very likely to do what you’re advocating here: trash it after 6 months. They’re going to be forced to continue to try to squeeze some value out of it, and in the process, cripple their own attempts at moving forward.

  3. 13.01.2010 at 9:53 am

    @maggie: No slam taken! In fact, I’ve written a blog post titled “Consultants suck” so you needn’t worry. It’s not all the consultants’ fault, of course, but you hit it on the head when you say “if an org pays $25 to have a strategy developed.” Orgs shouldn’t pay to have the strategy developed. They should pay to get help in becoming more strategic. The strategy (and document) are part of it, but if it’s viewed as a tangible thing with a price tag, then you’re missing the whole point and, as you say, will make it harder to be agile.

  4. 13.01.2010 at 3:05 pm

    Totally agree-they should pay to learn how to be strategic, then write their own strategy. That way when, 6 months down the line, it needs to change, they are equipped to do it themselves and to keep doing it as they adjust course into the future, rather than being stuck with a broken, expensive document that doesn’t work anymore but they can’t afford to shell out to have another consultant re-write it.
    I have to say that I’ve worked with some unbelievably good consultants but also with some who are incredibly bad, and it always astounds me that they can charge what they do and still be so bad.

  5. Well, my lovely comment was lost in trying to post so I will try again. Yes, the conversation is the piece that is crucial-the ongoing conversation not just the “session.” That being said, the document is a deliverable, it is tangible evidence that the leap was taken. It also provides organizations–particularly those who are beginning the shift to being more strategic–a way to focus and move forward. the best plans are the shortest. The document also is a reminder of the questions that should be asked at every juncture.

  6. 14.01.2010 at 9:51 am

    “Deliverables” have zero value if action is not taken.
    Strategy is about making decisions. Documents record those decisions so they can be communicated and acted upon. Good strategy docs facilitate taking focused action. They have no other significant value.