The point of having a strategy

What is the point of having a strategy? While this question sounds rhetorical, Michael Shattuck, Strategic Operations Consultant at Widen believes it’s the central dilemma of 21st-century business.

Our organizations have more options than ever before but make fewer choices due to a lack of strategic thinking.

A strategy is a freight train, a hulking, inexorable force heading towards preordained stations. It gives structure to agility, which enables us to reroute the train track in ways that weren’t possible in the 20th century Changing a line of code is much easier than changing an industrial assembly line.

One could argue that we amass, analyze, and operationalize so much data so quickly that no strategy can keep up with the pace of change. Having a strategy may make it feel like you’re stuck on onetrack. 

Let me offer a different narrative: Strategy is a defense againstthe overabundance and complexity of information that chokes our thinking. Strategy is one of those enduring tools – like principles, morals, and character – that guard our freight train from derailing. 

I define strategy as knowing today why and how you’re going to win tomorrow.We have a sense of what makes money, earns customers, grows sales, improves products, and leads to innovation. We use that information to lay track between the present and future. 

Our values, principles, and creativity tell us why we’re going to win. Our tactics, techniques, and skills inform how we’re going to win.

However, our environment conspires against commitment to a strategy. For tech companies especially, the roller coaster ride of user churn, social media engagement, ‘breaking’ news, and FOMO try to buck our strategy like a mechanical bull. The overabundance and complexity of information can lead us to anxiously question, revise, or altogether ignore the strategy we set down.  

Consider that for any marginally reasonable business idea, you could find data to support or reject it. Indeed, part of why we have an overabundance of bad information is because it’s so easy, cheap, and lucrative to create.

Let’s say I wanted you to find information that made you anxious about nothaving a strategy. I could write and conduct an online survey with questions like: 

  1. How important is an effective marketing strategy to your organization? (Very important, somewhat important, etc.)
  2. Do people in your organization understand, articulate, and act upon a strategy? 
  3. Do you have a data-driven method for reviewing and improve your strategy every year?

Read these questions carefully: They are manipulative. The first question ensures that readers believe that an effective marketing strategy is a good thing. The second sets an extremely high bar that few organizations will live up to. The third brings the obscure term “data-driven” in to ensure that the reader’s strategic planning norms aren’t good enough. 

When I “quantify” the loaded responses, I can post “data” to the internet saying something like this:  “90 percent of organizations think an effective marketing strategy is very important, but only 20 percent believe their coworkers understand, articulate, and act upon a strategy. Moreover, just 15 percent of companies say they have a data-driven method for reviewing and improving their strategy each year.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That is one example of the overabundant virus of information that vies to derail our strategy. It is designed to make us feel inadequate, fearful, and inferior to our competitors. It is meant to sell us solutions to problems we don’t have. 

The glut of information (don’t call it knowledge) on the Internet tends to be a mirror, not a neutral investigative tool. It helps us validate any hypotheses we want to be true. It helps us undermine and question our own goals. 

So, back to the question: What is the point of having a strategy?

  • We need firm convictions to resist bad data. A strategy helps us conquer an ever-flowing stream of junk information that otherwise can cause us to revise, pivot, and change so chaotically that we will never commit to anything and never fulfill our potential. The idea of a strategy taking one, three, or ten years vexes people, but it shouldn’t.

  • We thrive in communities of coworkers who understand and empathize with each other’s roles, responsibilities, and priorities. That community arises when colleagues share a strategy. In the absence of strategy, come first: my team, my budget, and my project. The me-first leader politicizes business. The strategic leader sacrifices vanity to logical objectives.

  • We need to shape futures rather than predict them. I could forecast that crypto technologies will disrupt programmatic advertising and try to reactaccordingly. Or, instead, I could develop a strategy for advancing programmatic ad tech such that everyone else must react. Strategy empowers us to take risks that are inherent to long-term, creative, daring innovations.

So many decisions are made for us. The restaurants within X miles of your office determine what you’re likely to eat or not eat. The distance from your home to the gym and its available equipment determine how you will train or not train your body. The technology your business has or doesn’t have will shape what your team believes is possible. Strategy is a decision that your team can make consciously.

We’re in a zoo-like mental environment that creates friction for strategic thinking. If you ever feel stuck in a cage, you’re not alone. And if you ever feel tempted to do the easy, conventional, obvious thing, you’re also not alone. Someone has created “data” to support whatever that conventional choice is, and that data is deviously reassuring. 

Know today why and how you’re going to win tomorrow. If you know – and your team knows – all the distractions will melt in your light. 

The point of having a strategy is to choosehow you and your colleagues will do business. Choose well, and you will find that strategy becomes a map that keeps you on track through all the shifts, pivots, and resets of change.