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what is strategy

What Is Strategy & Why 90% Fail At It

What is strategy? A lot of people ask themselves that question, yet most get the wrong answers.
However, before understanding Strategy, we need to quickly understand its lesser twin – planning.
What is planning and why does everyone love it so much?

Strategy and plans are both vehicles – they are ways to achieve a result. Imagine you have to organize a trip to a nearby city. If you decide to go by train, you’ll pay for your ticket and you’ll go to point A to point B, driving past several stations in-between, and following a specific route that you cannot change unless you step down and change trains… which would cost you the price of a new ticket.

That trip is a plan.
A plan is a list of steps you need to check to achieve a result, and usually deviating from the plan requires creating a new one.

Plans have something in common with bad strategy: They both tend to ignore the challenges that a business is supposed to overcome, but that’s precisely the appeal of a plan. A plan makes reality something it is not – predictable and straightforward. Plans are comforting and reassuring.

(By the way, before you go on: You can also enjoy this article and find out what is strategy in video form if you’re more into listening)

Finding a Definition | What is Strategy?

But what is a strategy then? And if it’s so good, why don’t more people deploy real strategy in their business?

First of all, strategy is not a synonym of ambition, success, aspiration or innovation, which is the reason why there’s such thing as a “Marketing Strategy” or “IT Strategy”. That’s corporate speak for glorified success plans that your business units will put on your desk when they need more budget.
There are IT implementation plans, there are Marketing Plans, but there is Business Strategy.

Let’s bring it back to the previous example.
You are planning a trip to a nearby city.
This time, instead of going by train you decide to go by car: Choosing this vehicle will give you more flexibility.

Based on what your goals are in that city, and based on challenges such as the weather conditions, your energy levels, and potential traffic jams or accidents, you can plan your trip differently. You will avoid that specific highway at that specific time because you know it gets jam packed with cars. You will avoid some areas because you remember there are men at work and traffic will be slower. You will even plan, if you want, your stops for fuel and food if the trip is a long one.

A strategy is exactly that: You sitting down to think about what is the best way to get to your destination, assessing all the challenges that might arise in the process, and deciding which way is the most likely to get you there faster.

Strategy is a cohesive response to one or more challenges.

Definition by Richard Rumelt

When we are doing strategy work for companies, we are not coming up with plans, goals and buzzwords – we analyzing a situation, coming up to concepts about how to face it, arguments supporting my concepts, and the policies that guide the execution of the strategy.

And that’s where most people, even executives, fall short: A strategy without action planned within it is destined to fail. The beating heart of any strategy work is discovering the critical factors of a situation and designing a way of coordinating the decisions that will allow you to deal with those factors.

Now, back to our example, there are key differences between a strategy and a plan: The two main ones is that a plan doesn’t take the problems into consideration, while a strategy does. The other is that a plan takes success for granted, while a strategy is a theory.

Back to the road trip example, you can sit down and strategise the best way to reach your destination, but you can’t predict a freak accident on the highway.
But now your logical brain is asking a question that we need to answer: Then why do people mix up strategy with planning? Now that we know what is strategy… Why isn’t strategy the norm?

Why people don’t use strategy | What Is Strategy

I didn’t mention your brain by chance. You see, that extremely powerful machine between our ears exists for two purposes mainly: Keeping you alive, and doing it for long enough for you to reproduce and keep the species going.

Our brains don’t like effort. Thinking requires energy, and every ounce of energy given to thinking five moves ahead in your business strategy, is also an ounce of energy your brain could be saving in case a life-threatening danger appeared.

Is it likely, that you will get attacked by an enemy tribe while strategizing for your business?
No, of course, but our brains don’t know we live in a society and we’re mostly safe most of the time.

Our brains want to save energy.
And strategy work requires a lot of energy.
If planning is just about defining steps to achieve a goal without considering every possible opposing factor, strategising is the exact opposite.

Stratetegizing is about considering possibilities, about having policies in place to avoid obstacles. It is creative work that goes beyond building and presenting fancy slide decks, like a McKinsey consultant would do after you pay them millions.

Strategizing does also something that most people hate: It confronts us with reality and with the possibility that our plans might fail.
Even worse, we mentioned strategy is a theory – which means we can’t prove its chances of success in advance.

And yet, despite all of this, the most successful businesses on the planet, from Apple to Cisco, are built on two pillars: Business Strategy and Communication Strategy.

What Is Strategy?
3D Render Realistic Chess isolated on pastel purple background illustration Design.

Do You Need Strategy? | What Is Strategy

Yes, you do need a strategy, for a thousand reasons that come down to one reason only: 
You need to work on your strategy because most of your competition doesn’t have one.

I’ve worked with companies where the “Marketing Strategy” was to “run brand awareness campaigns.”
I’ve seen companies where their “growth strategy” was “to get more clients this year.”
Those are not strategies.

One is a tactic, and the other is a goal.
Lack of strategy is the biggest weakness most of your competitors have, and one that you can leverage to propel your business forward:
So stop just planning your goals, and start coming up with a set of ideas, arguments, policies and actions that will make those goals actually achievable.

Also, if you want to know more about how we implement real Strategy at Sypnotic, check out our FOMGROP initiative:

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