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

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

One of my previous mentors always used to say, "Everybody always wants to do strategy."

The word "strategy," much like "aesthetic" and "agile," is a buzzword that gets people excited. It exudes an air of intelligence and importance. People are rarely challenged to elaborate when they say they're operating strategically, and promising employees vying to climb the corporate ladder are swift to use "strategy" 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. That said, here's a reality check: just because you use the word "strategy" doesn't mean your plan is strategic.

It's a word that's long been misused. High-potential employees need to understand its nuances--and more importantly, determine the difference between good and bad strategy or risk derailing their best-laid plans. 

What Strategy Isn't 

"Strategy" gets frequently thrown around in organizations, from small startups to large corporations. But the true meaning 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, let's take a quick look at its origins. 

The History of Strategic Thinking 

"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 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. Simply put, strategy considers all the plan's contextual variables 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 our competitive set, but robust data can provide critical details on optimal streaming dates/times, and viewer retention during 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 your plan's outputs benefit your community (whether they 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 were hooked by stories 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 rest, as they say, is history: When you consider the total gross of every MCU film in chronological order, with few exceptions, every film grossed more than its predecessor. By phase II, the MCU was grossing between 125%-200% more revenue from sequels than original films, with each Avengers movie grossing $1.5-$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 superpowers. Leaders want to see authentic strategic capability, and employees who can demonstrate it are those who will ultimately rise to the top. With this in mind, high-potentials have the possibility to drive impactful results at work— without simply using performative jargon in hopes of achieving the desired result. 

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