A few decades ago, I was in a project kickoff meeting with a new client named Mary. At the ripe age of 25, I was new to business, especially running a company. My education was in Environmental Sciences, not Business Administration, which gave me an inferiority complex when dealing with seasoned business people. Mary was my polar opposite. She was a very successful marketing entrepreneur and sought-after strategist. Having already grown an agency to over 70 employees and successfully exiting it, Mary knew the challenges ahead for me in developing my agency. In short, I highly respected Mary to the point of feeling intimidated.
Mary, myself, and my business partner Scott sat around a table and started to brainstorm how we would tackle the objectives of our newest project. The Meadows Community in Castle Rock, Colorado, was the largest residential construction project in Colorado at the time. Our job was to attract a primarily Californian audience to the new community. While I can't recall what I said during this session, I do remember how I was outlining the "things" that needed to be done on the project when Mary firmly said to me, "those are tactics, not strategies."
Taken back by the directness of her statement, I concluded that I was showing my lack of experience and formal business education. I was off for the remainder of the meeting; I hesitated to speak up. The old cliche rang in my ears, "it's better to remain silent and be thought of as a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."
As a seasoned strategist, Mary was telling me that activities don't constitute a strategy. I learned a valuable lesson that day. When I hear "strategic planning," I cringe a bit. The term is a poorly worded phrase that creates confusion among teams undertaking the exercise. It's a Frankenstein approach that blends both activities and dilutes the effectiveness of thoughtful strategy and clear plans.
Plans are activities to undertake. In this regard, the company is the actual "customer." It's the company that controls the budget, resources, and timelines. There is certainty and control in "planning" activities.
- Open five new office locations.
- Develop a new service offering.
- Improve customer experience.
By contrast, strategy is outcome-facing. It's a hypothesis about the customer and how to better engage them with the company. It's outside the direct control of the company. Therefore strategy is inherently uncomfortable, unprovable, and uncertain. It's also why many companies avoid pure strategy in favor of the hybrid "strategic planning."
Strategy comes first. It's an exercise to understand the market conditions, competitors, and your offerings. It states what you want to happen; how you want the customers to behave. When you lay out the logic of the strategy and the assumptions made, it invites inquiry from the rest of the team. Doing so makes the strategy stronger and more likely to succeed. Resist the urge to over-explain or justify the strategy beyond a page. Great strategies can be stated in one page or less. This makes the strategy more adaptable and easier for the team to remember.
In Scaling Up we love to cite Southwest Airlines. Southwest saw an opportunity to be a low-cost carrier. All other airlines were flying hub-and-spoke models, but Southwest saw an advantage in being a point-to-point carrier. They created a strategic single phrase strategy of "wheels up," which drove a myriad of activities that drove costs lower, including:
- Flying only 737s, their crew could focus on one type of plan. All parts could be interchangeable, and all gates would be the same. This meant less time on the ground and more time in the air.
- We'll specialize in short flights, so there is no need for meals and the extra costs and load time required to turn the plane around.
- Rather than loading seat by seat, we'll allow passengers to grab any seat they'd like so we can load the plane as soon as possible.
Today Southwest flies the most airline miles in the United States. Southwest played to win, not to compete with the others.
"Strategic planning" is simply planning, often without the strategy element. Take the time to think strategically. Strategic companies gain competitive advantages because they aren't content with the status quo. The most outstanding leaders aren't sheep in their industries; they pioneer new paths by stepping back and questioning the industry's approach.
In the Scaling Up world, we have the 7 Strata worksheet that helps companies articulate a solid strategy. In my experience, it takes a team several hours to complete 7 Strata, and the discussions around the worksheet are priceless.