Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Is Strategy Useless?

Some of the words we use in business are just plain worthless, and the word “strategy” is one of them.

Let me tell you a story: at FROM, we work with teams of senior executives from Fortune 500 companies to help them develop new products, master new markets, and drive more successful business outcomes. We frequently find ourselves in meetings with teams of leaders who want help developing a new strategy. Generally, the team is in agreement: “Yes, we want you to help us develop a new strategy.”

Great! So we ask them some questions to get greater clarity. First: What is your strategy today? The answer to this question is usually extremely varied, ranging from “We don’t really have a strategy,” to “Our strategy is to grow our market in China,” to “Our strategy is to grow 8% a year,” to “We have three primary projects we are focused on right now.” In fact, these are all real examples. But these aren’t variations between companies; they’re different answers we got from executives at the same company during the same meeting.

Another example of this phenomenon came to us recently, when we had a client call us in to help facilitate and finalize a strategy project that was stuck. The client had run their own executive off-site before calling us and developed a “strategy” during that session that about half of the leadership team had signed on to. The other half of the team, led by the CMO, had not. Not because they disagreed with the substance of the strategy, but because they didn’t agree that what had been created was a strategy. They saw it as a set of tactics. They had reached a stalemate, and came to us with several questions, one of which was, “What constitutes a strategy?”

A well-conceived “strategy” can be a hugely important part of business success. But don’t blame yourself if you have to hire a consultant to help you define a word. Especially when it’s such a useless term.

In contrast, here’s an example of a nice, useful word: dog. Dog is a pretty useful word, right? Here’s a test: I’m standing next to a dog, and I ask 100 people, “Am I standing next to a dog?” In all likelihood, they’re all going to say yes*. (Feel free to run this test yourself.) We can use it in a phrase: good dog. It’s a word that stands for a clear concept. (And I can even live with the fact that when I say “dog,” it’s possible you are thinking of a Dachshund and I’m thinking of a Great Dane. At least I know we’re both thinking of a dog, and not a wombat and a centipede.)

Now, try that same test with strategy, or vision, or roadmap. I know for a fact it will fail, because we do this test all the time. Companies often come to us so we can help them develop a vision or roadmap. One of the first exercises we do is to get the key sponsors together (usually a group of 4-6,) give them each a piece of foam core and markers, and ask them individually to imagine that vision or roadmap. We have them draw what they think it looks like, list what it contains, explain key points, etc. Then we go around the room and each person shares what they drew. The results often prompt laughter and enlightenment, and usually the group realizes, “we all agreed we wanted a vision, but we all meant different things by that!” (Not that they had a different vision, but that they meant different types of things while using the same word.)

Here’s how to dig yourself out of the hole of useless words – and it’s not by having a consultant define the word. The key questions are, as a business, what are you trying to achieve, and what things do you need to clarify to achieve your outcome? You can call it a strategy, a roadmap, a vision or another term, and if everyone agrees to use the same label, then great. But you still need to ask: what is it? Usually, it’s a collection of things. It might include some specific, measurable goals, descriptions of overall approaches or tactics, specific initiatives with dates and accountable parties, or possibly some other components. These sorts of goals and initiatives can be thought through and specifically defined to meet the needs of any given situation.

In summary, to avoid the trap of useless words, be sure to look beyond agreement of the need for one of these abstract terms, and ask the stakeholders what they are expecting when described more specifically.

If you are stuck in a situation where different stakeholders can’t agree on what one of these “useless words” means, try the following things. First, agree that the definition of the word doesn’t matter. Second, refer back to your desired outcome. Finally, using that outcome, decide what other decisions or artifacts would support your goal. This might include any or all of the following:

  1. Break down the goal into sub-goals (such as revenue by division, region, customer type or product line)
  2. Key milestones to the ultimate goal(s)
  3. Governance structure, including who owns this goal
  4. Key elements of the approach to achieve this goal
  5. Definition of any tactics that are “off the table” (such as only ‘organic’ growth)
  6. Portfolio of initiatives
  7. Customer-focused definition of your new value proposition
  8. Anything else you decide is necessary!

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