Strategy is for Everyone
Executives love throwing around the word “strategy”. They’ve got their product strategy, tech strategy, marketing strategy, go-to-market strategy, go-to-lunch strategy, get-my-bonus strategy and everything in between. But what does it even mean, and how should you think strategically in your role?
Most people think they have to be an executive to do “strategy”. Most executives think “strategy” is simply a label that applies to anything they do. Turns out they’re both wrong. Strategy is a process for getting things done that starts at the top and rolls recursively all the way through a company. If an executive team doesn’t have a strategy, then the rest of the company can only succeed by accident. If a company can think strategically at all levels they’re not guaranteed success, only their best shot at it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know what a strategy is or how to create one. It’s much easier than you might think. You don’t need an MBA or a fancy title to think strategically. All you need is this simple definition:
A Strategy is an actionable choice you make about how to do something
This definition might seem too simple to be useful, but let’s work backwards to unpack each key word and see how this simple statement holds the keys to strategic thinking.
Start with a Goal
The first step in strategic thinking is clearly defining your goal — the “something”. I’m amazed how often people skip this step and spend their days working on the next task in front of them, just hoping for an outcome.
If you want to think strategically, start by asking yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Write it down and look at it. Ask yourself if this goal is worth accomplishing. If you accomplish it, what impact will it have? Will it move you closer to your vision? Is it the most impactful “something” you can do?
If that goal statement is starting to look lonely, give it some friends. Write down alternatives even if you think they’re dumb. Alternatives give you perspective and comparing your original to others will help you understand it better.
Follow this process until you are confident you know what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it. Write down your goal and don’t forget it.
A goal by itself is not a strategy. There are lots of executives that seem to think that a revenue number or a feature roadmap constitutes a strategy. Those are goals, but there are infinite ways to accomplish any given goal. Evaluating and choosing which methods you’re going to use is the meat (or tofu…) of strategy work.
With your goal in mind, think about everything you could do that would affect the outcome. I like to think of these as potential levers I could pull. What levers affect the output? For example, let’s say your goal is to increase revenue for your business by 50%. A list of potential levers might be:
- Improve lead generation
- Increase close rate
- Increase average deal size
Next, you’ll have to choose which of these levers you’re going to pull. This is the hard part. If your decision is to pull all the levers, then you don’t have a strategy. Making a choice necessarily means closing some doors. If you’re not willing to let some things go, you’re going to spread your energy too thin to succeed.
You can evaluate each input/lever by considering two things: Your ability to affect that input and the impact that input will have in determining the outcome.
Strategy is about applying your greatest strengths against your opponent’s greatest weakness
Said another way, strategy is about leverage.
In order to apply it, you’ll need to understand your strengths and your problem’s weaknesses. Depending on the type of problem you’re trying to solve, this might mean doing market research, competitive analysis, or studying gang of four design patterns. Do your research and you’ll develop perspective on these strengths and weaknesses. Those insights are the competitive advantage you’ll lean on to make reasonable decisions about which levers to pull and why. These decisions and the reasoning behind them are the core of your strategy.
Strategy is Actionable
A huge misconception about strategy is that it’s abstract — “the fluffy stuff”. People think of strategy as something executives do on a boondoggle retreat or something you keep in a binder on a shelf that collects dust. That really shouldn’t be the case. Strategy should be immediately actionable.
There is an exercise in root cause analysis called “The 5 Why’s” in which you repeatedly ask “why” until you get down to the bottom of why something happened. Strategy works in much the same way, except instead of asking “why”, you ask “how”.
Take a look at the levers you chose for your strategy and ask “how” you might move them. Going back to our example about revenue, let’s say you chose lever #1, “Improve Lead Generation”. How might you do that?
- Increase presence at conferences
- Actively engage on social media
- Increase spend on paid advertising
- Create original content
- Run more targeted marketing campaigns
Which ideas are you in the best position to execute on? Which of these ideas would impact the goal the most? Which work well together? Why? Make your choices and you’ve now taken your strategy one step closer to actionable.
You can repeat this exercise recursively using your output decisions as inputs to the next round to get increasingly concrete. How many rounds you go is a subjective question.
In just about every strategic planning session, someone eventually protests that “that’s not strategy, that’s tactics!” The subsequent posturing and semantic sparring is intractable and a great opportunity to refresh your coffee and catch up on email. The difference between strategy and tactics is really hard to define (try googling it). What this friction really indicates is that you might be trying to answer “how” at too low a level.
As an executive or manager you don’t need or want to ask “how” all the way down to the point of dictating your team’s activities. Ask “how” too many times and you’re a micromanager. Don’t ask how enough and you prevent your team from being able to work strategically. You want to ask “how” just enough times to provide strategic context for your team to pick up where you left off and create their own strategies.
If everyone in the organization thinks strategically, then every “how” is tied to the “how” above it. Strategic thinking isn’t only for executives, it’s for everyone. It starts at the top, but everyone has to apply it within their own scope to be effective. Whether you’re working in a company of 10,000 or a startup of 1, clearly defining your goal and recursively choosing your “how’s” is going to be the best way to stop being reactive and start getting things done.