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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.

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