Navigation mobile icon
Mobile navigation close window icon
Capabilities icon
what we do
Expand section icon
additional services to ask about:
talent strategy & development
employee engagement & retention
total rewards
change strategy & enablement

Why You're Probably Using the Word "Strategy" Incorrectly

Just because you say that you're operating strategically doesn't actually mean that your plan is strategic.

"Everybody always wants to do strategy." One of my previous mentors and team director used to always say that. 

The word "Strategy," similar to terms like "aesthetic" and "agile," is one of those present-day buzzwords that gets people excited. It exudes an air of intelligence and importance. Very rarely are people challenged or asked to elaborate when they say they're operating strategically, and high-potential employees vying for their next step up in the corporate ladder are swift to use the word at every opportunity. 

High-potentials aren't wrong to use the word to their advantage. After all, leadership wants proof that employees are capable of implementing plans that increase revenue and bolster productivity. But even still, the reality check for many high-potentials is often this: just because you use the word "strategy" doesn't actually mean that your plan is strategic.

It's a word that's been (mis)used now for years. High-potential employees need to understand the nuances of the word, and more importantly, determine the difference between good and bad strategy, or else risk derailing their best laid plans and machinations. 

What Strategy Isn't 

The word "strategy" gets frequently thrown around in organizations, from small startups to large corporations. However, the true meaning behind the word is often lacking, and most people conflate strategy with other concepts. 

Strategy is often confused with planning or intelligence, when in fact, it's both. Here's an example: "let's create a strategy for increasing our webinar viewership." The plan includes the methods and tactics used to present content and garner views, but that plan may or may not be strategic

Strategy is also often used to mean "smart" or "intelligently." How many times have you heard a colleague say, "We need to be strategic about this," when they really meant, "Let's be smart about this?" It goes without saying that a good leader acts and thinks strategically, but strategy in itself is more than sitting at the helm and calling the shots. 

So what does strategy really mean? To understand how it applies in a business context, we'll want to take a quick look into its historical origins. 

The History of Strategic Thinking 

The word "strategy" is derived from the classical and Byzantine Greek "strategos," which means "general." It was the Romans, however, who introduced the term in a wartime context, referring to compilations of strategema, or, literally, "tricks of war." Ultimately, strategy stemmed from the need to overcome enemies, win battles, and gain control of resources necessary for survival and expansion. 

Let's look a little bit deeper into this historical context. By the time Julius Caesar was invading Gaul, the Roman Legions were using precise military tactics, taking into account environmental context, fatigue, time of day, availability of water, you name it. Of course, their plan was to defeat said army or occupy said territory, but it was strategy, that is, how they used their military intelligence to execute said plan, that led to victory. 

In a business context, strategy has taken on a similar (albeit less bloody) meaning. Business strategies involve carefully executing plans built to play on strengths, synergizing with other business elements and opportunities while avoiding pitfalls, and compensating for weaknesses. That is, strategy, considers all the contextual variables around the plan in order to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

How To Do It Well

With all the variables to consider, here's an easy place to start: 

  • identify the problem to solve or the goal to reach,
  • assess your own strengths and weaknesses, 
  • evaluate external opportunities and threats 

This is the easy part. Many organizations and teams rely on SWOT templates (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) to inform their strategies. For individuals, simply taking a few minutes to reflect on your internal strengths and weaknesses as related to the project and considering the neighboring initiatives of your cross-functional partners can go a long way. 

SWOT analysis can lead to good strategy, but great strategy also involves utilizing data insights to make informed decisions. Let's go back to our example of increasing webinar viewership. A SWOT analysis can give us a sense of the topics where we have the most expertise and what competitors we should compare to, but robust data can provide critical details on optimal streaming dates/times and viewer retention during the course of a stream. Even more important, analytics can provide key insights into the things we may not have caught in the SWOT. Maybe it's not the webinars themselves that aren't garnering viewership; maybe we're just advertising through the wrong channel. 

Finally, a great strategy also has positive externalities. In economics, an externality is a side effect or consequence of a commercial activity that affects other parties without being reflected in the cost of said project. In strategy, it's the same thing; the more that the outputs of your plan benefit your community (whether that be neighboring projects, initiatives, or associates), the better it is. 

In one of my favorite examples, Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began its saga with Iron Man and a number of other films with independent storylines. While each story stands alone, the positive externality of each film was that viewers found interest in stories that occurred within the same universe. Small after-credit snippets also helped to connect the dots between the independent stories, again helping to boost the total gross of subsequent films. The story is history from there. Just look at the total gross of every MCU film in chronological order. With a few exceptions, every film grossed more than the previous. By phase II, the MCU was grossing between 125%-200% more revenue off of sequels than original films, with each capstone Avengers movie grossing between 1.5 and 2 billion worldwide, making the MCU the highest-grossing film franchise of all time. Yes, the movies are good, but it's the strategy that's great. 

Final Thoughts

In keeping with the Marvel metaphor, everyone wants to be a hero, but understanding the difference between a simple plan disguised as strategy and true strategic action is key to unlocking your professional super powers. Leaders want to see authentic strategic capability, and employees who can demonstrate it are those who will ultimately rise to the top. Knowing this, high-potentials have the possibility to drive impactful results in their respective organizations — without simply using performative jargon in hopes of achieving the desired result. 

Craig Ishii

Craig brings thirteen years of proven results in marketing and advertising success for organizations and companies of all sizes. Craig has increased the scope, impact, and ultimately revenue for product sales, portfolios, and businesses through integrated multi-channel brand and product campaigns, emotionally resonating advertising concepts, team leadership, and outside-of-the-box thinking across different sectors and industries. Craig spent his first ten years in two nonprofit Director roles helping organizations define, articulate, and proliferate their brand. From 2011-2018 he founded a nonprofit, which now develops ethnic identity and community service engagement for over 1,000 youth per year.

more insight


Subscribe to our newsletter for regular insight and news

more insight

Yes, Your Nostalgia Is Valid. No, It Doesn't Necessarily Belong At Work.

As old paradigms fall by the wayside, how we shape company culture and do business altogether is transforming at breakneck speeds.

How the LGBTQ+ Movement is Dismantling the Gender Binary System

Uniqueness of identification has grown and blossomed into a spectrum of diversity, challenging the way companies think about DEIB

The Big Quit: How Burnout During a Pandemic Is Reshaping the Workforce

There are a number of complex forces at play that are steering people away from the workforce, but arguably the most common and predominant, is burnout.

Is the 5-Hour Workday the Answer to All Our Problems?

There are many new concepts and theories out there today that promote an improved work-life balance for employees, the five-hour workday being one of the most compelling.

Why You're Probably Using the Word "Strategy" Incorrectly

Just because you say that you're operating strategically doesn't actually mean that your plan is strategic.

Do We Even Need Managers Anymore?

With growing pressure on companies to give employees more freedom, the role of the traditional manager is becoming more and more obsolete.

5 Ways the Modern Employee Can Exercise Power Over Employers

Well-connected, critically-skilled employees have more choices today regarding how and where they work than ever before.

No, You Can’t Always Just “Be Yourself” At Work. Here’s Why. 

Yes, “be yourself” is definitely sound advice; and these days, employers are known to tell their employees the same thing. 

Is Fear a Barrier to Inclusion & Belonging? Why Companies Balk at Action

There's an energized focus on DEIB programs are surging across the American workplace - why aren't employers taking action?

Speed vs. Quality: The Timeless Dilemma

It's not always easy to know when to prioritize between speed or time in business, and there may not be one right answer.

Intent vs. Impact: The Communication Disconnect

Your words likely don't have the impact that you intend them to have, and this can be problematic, particularly in the workplace.

Feedback Doesn't Have to be Scary

Giving and receiving effective feedback is not always an easy task, and here are some insights to help you along the way.

Does Unlimited PTO Work?

Unlimited PTO sounds like a dream come true, but we're not so sure. Is it here to stay, or is it just the flavor of the week?

Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A Webinar

Join us for an intersectional discussion with experts in neurodiversity on the benefits of employing a diverse team.

Lessons in Biases from the Olympics

We bring our biases everywhere, and even during our most celebrated and joyous traditions, they can leave an impact.

A New Norm? - Exploring the 4-Day Workweek

Are we truly our most productive when we work five days a week? Recent studies suggest that might not be the case.

Reflections on LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Corporate America

For Pride Month 2021, Enspira interviewed two pioneers in the LGBTQ+ business community who continue to inspire change.

How to Recognize, Talk About & Support Mental Health

This article will discuss how to recognize when someone is struggling with their mental health, tips on thoughtfully reaching out, and how to talk about it with them when they’re ready to receive help.

Four Steps to Cultivating Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging

We must all continue to acknowledge and celebrate diversity in the workplace, and only then will we see lasting change.

Caregivers: Working Women in a Pandemic

The raging pandemic has pushed people beyond reasonable limits, and has adversely affected women disproportionately.

Propelling Gender & Racial Equity in STEM

The world is facing monumental challenges in the time of COVID-19, widening existing gaps in racial and gender equity.

Your frontline managers’ capability & effectiveness matters now more than ever. Here’s what you need.

It’s now more important than ever to ensure your organization has strong people manager capability and effectiveness.

Disrupting your culture with “The 3 Bs of belonging”

How inclusive is your organization? Simply checking the representation boxes and creating policies isn't enough.


explore our offerings & capabilities

additional offerings

Hand holding plant icon

talent strategy & development

Creating the right talent management strategies and plan to ensure retention and development of a superior workforce.

Hand shake icon

employee engagement & retention

Building comprehensive employee engagement and retention strategies to  improve productivity, reduce staff turnover, increase innovation, and retain customers.

Gift box icon

total rewards

Finding the right combination of benefits, compensation, rewards, and recognition to sustain employee engagement and performance.

Potted plan icon

change strategy & enablement

Helping organizations through complex and challenging evolutions ensuring that employees are kept engaged throughout the journey.

Project development on a desk
ready to get started?

Reimagine and revolutionize your human-work experience. Enspira presents the best and brightest to bring breakthrough solutions that put the power of your business purpose into the hands of the people.

contact us