What is Strategy Really?

My name is Chris Simmance, and I’m addicted to strategy.

Having run a few businesses, I can honestly say that a core pillar of any success has always been linked to strategy. Growth strategy, sales, marketing and financial strategy, even hiring or training and retention strategy. Without knowing the end result intended, how can you know how to get there?

You don’t get in the car for a long journey without a destination and (almost) always have a purpose for the journey. The why.

Why am I writing this?

I have no desire to name and shame at all, but in the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of “strategies” produced by individuals, agencies and consultancies.

Largely they either fall into three categories:

  1. This is a strategy, and it looks like it ticks the right boxes;
  2. I see this is pretty much a strategy but probably won’t go further than the initial document; &
  3. This is not a strategy at all.

Let’s explore these a little. I won’t go into too much detail as much of this will be covered in the rest of this piece.

  1. This is a strategy, and it looks like it ticks the right boxes
    Essentially, these are times where I’ve seen a strategy produced for or by a business that largely fits the typical requirements as well as having a framework for managing activity. One key thing that helps when I look at these is seeing accountable stakeholders, dates and measures;
  2. I see this is pretty much a strategy but probably won’t go further than the initial document.
    Essentially, these are examples where you can see a strategy template has been used. They are ‘followable’ and seem to be the product of some thought. The reason they get bucketed into my second category is that they are either missing the right measurement set up or a way to manage activity and traction; or
  3. This is not a strategy at all.
    Usually, these are simply lists of actions. Sometimes you have these lists masquerading as a strategy because they are in a nice format or have measures, timelines or the usual vendor-speak that suggests it fits the bill. Neigh on 99 times out of 100; they are just lists of actions or tactics.

One of my favourite strategy quotes ever is:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu – Art of War

What strategy is not

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in rooms or on calls where people are all nodding along to things like “Our strategy for Q3 of this year is to sell more [product/service] in [location/channel]“. This is not a strategy. This is goal setting. It’s a person or organisation saying that the end result of a strategy is to meet this goal.

I’ve seen countless strategy documents which are the result of an audit or audits and simply list out the things needed changing against pillars or areas of need. Whilst this is a component of a strategy, alone it is not one. This is research or tactical in nature.

In the past, in my own organisations, I’ve seen people using a strategy document I created as a template. There’s nothing inherently wrong there but in some cases, this template was used to copy and paste, find and replace to effectively render it useless. It was a “Cookie Cutter”…. No strategy is or really should be Cookie Cutter. The framework can be, the process to develop can be but the output simply cannot.

In summary. Strategy is not:

  • Goal setting;
  • Listing tactics; or
  • Filling out a template.

What the above ends up being is the “Strategy without Tactics” or “Tactics without Strategy” element of what Sun Tzu was talking of. It’s the noise before defeat. You’ve got a list or template but missing pieces that mean the end result is a checklist or something too intangible.

What strategy is

If we know what strategy is not then we should define what strategy is. I like to break it down into a few things:

  • What and Why;
  • Challenges;
  • Tactics;
  • Goals; &
  • Traction.

What or Why

No strategy is a strategy without knowing the end result of everything that’s going to be done. What is it we want to be the result and Why are we using the resource to get there. Essentially, “We want to see X results because it means Y things that are good for us“.

Having a Why is a big thing with larger teams too. It helps to tangibly link their work to a bigger picture. It’s a good way to get buy-in as well as maintain traction. If we all know that we want to sell more of a thing, my why as the consultant is going to be different to a shareholder’s. If we’re all clear on how the bigger picture of the what and why, depending on the business or management structure, the individual why is agreed and helps keep people invested.

Challenges

Research, research research! No strategy can be a complete success without knowing your enemy. There aren’t any successful militaries in the world that wouldn’t look into their enemy’s capabilities, the terrain, the resources they have available, the skills within their ranks and on and on. You cannot build a strategy without looking at the challenges you need to overcome.

These are split into things you can control, things you can influence and things you cannot control. For example, you can control (or maybe not) your own website, you can influence the content on your digital channels but cannot control the channel and how it works. You cannot control your competitor’s websites or what they are planning in their strategy.

I hate to sound like Donald Rumsfeld here but that final point on the competitor’s strategy being a challenge you cannot control is a ‘Known unknown. You know they’re likely to have one and be working on it but you are very unlikely to know what it involves outside the broad strokes.

Tactics

Out of the challenges research, you then have a LOT of tactical activities to undertake. At the risk of using the military analogy to death, here’s another one. Once the army knows everything they can about the mission, they then plan a series of activities ranging from preparatory to actual contact and withdrawal. All of these are tactical and they each work towards overcoming a challenge or series of challenges to meet the end result of the overall strategy.

In our world, this is also the case. A goal set in a strategy may be to sell more of something but the challenges may be things such as:

  • We don’t have a website capable of selling;
  • We don’t have any digital presence; and
  • We don’t have the capability to share or ship what we sell.

Within any of these three examples, there are several tactical actions that need to be overcome in different time frames and by different people. You may need to build a site entirely or you may need to augment what you have, either way, there is a long list of things needed action to ‘tick’ them off on the way toward the end results.

Goals

Goals split into two elements, lagging goals and leading goals.

Lagging: A lagging goal would be measures that would only be able to be reported after the activity has been undertaken. For example, the goal of selling 25% more of a product at the end of the year is a lagging goal. The lagging element is that you do not know if you met it until its too late.

This doesn’t make it irrelevant or something not to measure and award success to at all. It just means that if at the end of that year you only sold 20% more of the product, you weren’t able to act or change the plan sooner.

Leading: A leading goal is just that, it helps lead you on the road toward the end, lagging goal. For example, at its basic form, say that your lagging goal is to sell 25% more of a product but the end of the year. In this example, you need to have a lagging goal or set of them that, as you lead up to the end, you know if you are going to meet it.

You may want to be really simplistic and say +25% per month is an indicator that in 12 months you’ll be +25% at the end of the year. That isn’t likely to work and misses things along the way.

You need a mix of result goals and action goals as leading goals. In the example above, to reach 25% additional product sales, we would need to meet X actions/tactics to overcome Y challenge in Q1. Meeting these actions *should* produce the right outcomes in that or a period close after. We can then say by building a shop onto the site in Q1 (action) we have then made +2% more sales in Q1 over the business (result).

In most strategies, the end result (e.g. +25%) won’t be the real result over the year. Some months may be +90% due to seasonality or -5% for the same reason. They aggregated over the year and are tracked as leading goals to the end, lagging one.

Traction

This is the big one. Not in terms of what you need to read, but in terms of what really makes a strategy meet the goals and keep people bought into the big picture…and their own why.

It might sound like a simple thing. Set up the tactics for a challenge, have some goals and reporting and it’ll all follow that. Not quite.

To keep traction, yes you need meetings and calls and reporting but you need to break a strategy’s challenges and tactics as well as goals down into something that keeps accountability and helps remind people of the big picture.

Think about a charity thermometer. Everyone can see the leading goals (the notches/markers) and the lagging goal (the final fund) and you typically then have lots of fundraisers all sharing the main goal (thermometer/lagging). They also, as part of that share their own fund target (gofundme/leading) connected to actions they are essentially accountable for, usually in fancy dress, doing. They are invested in the end result as much as their own part in it. The charity themselves are informed of their intentions and, depending on the actions they plan to do to raise the money, consulted beforehand. This then forms part of a network that generates traction between all involved.

I’ve always been a fan of the RACI matrix as it’s a great way to keep people in different departments or tangentially linked to a goal by others needing to do multiple actions bought in.

RACI stands for:

  • Responsible;
  • Accountable;
  • Consulted; &
  • Informed.

Before going into these, it’s vital that there is a clear understanding of the difference between being accountable for something and responsible for something. The way I like to explain it is: As the department manager I am accountable for the job getting done to standard but a member of the department may be responsible for doing one or multiple elements of that job which get delivered. Responsibility can be shared with a team but accountability cannot.

Ok, RACI!

Responsible

I am responsible for doing one or several tasks in the list of tactical actions that overcome a challenge. I report my actions to the person accountable for them and take my delegated tasks from them.

Accountable

I am accountable for understanding the challenge and the tactical actions that, completed, will help to overcome the challenge. I am capable of effectively delegating that task or tasks to the responsible person(s) and managing them throughout to ensure to spec and to timely delivery.

Consulted

I am consulted on the task as I am a knowledge holder on the challenge or linked activities. I feed into the task to ensure it solves the problem or creates the right result.

Informed

I am not really involved in this part of the strategy but am informed of the progress so I can do my part that I have to play later.

By having a structure like this, you then have the ability to hold and be held to account as well as fully see all the other players in the game. It’s then easier for someone who’s responsible for 15 tasks to understand that the person that is accountable for them isn’t just taking the credit, they have a different part of the same machine. It keeps everyone honest and keeps all involved self-accountable too.

For me, I find that when people across an entire hierarchy understand their piece of the puzzle and how they fit in, plus have their why which is linked to the group success, you see real traction in a strategy,

What do you do if it goes wrong?

Ever heard the (sorry) military term “No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy”? It’s a version of what Helmuth von Moltke said in the nineteenth century.

In the simplest terms, you can plan and prepare, have the best tools and smartest, most committed people but there will always be something.

You miss something in the list of tactics that obviously important right after missing it. Someone leaves the organisation taking vital knowledge away. You didn’t anticipate X or Y. It’s normal.

The first thing to do is not throw the baby out with the bathwater. You need to calmly assess what the impact of the change is and what is needed to mitigate its impact. It may be that nothing was missed except the goal not being reached. All great strategy has the flexibility to change, adapt and evolve in order to meet its needs.

Essentially, that’s the point of those leading goals. With them, you identify that you won’t hit the end goal because you’re down 50% on the Q1 target. You’re then able to assess what is needed and make a revision to things to work back toward the end goal.

Takeaways

So I’ve gone into some detail on what a strategy is and is not as well as defined the elements I think to form a complete strategy. I’ve also shared how I have found best to start, maintain and show traction. What I left out is this:

Find an amazing Project Manager if you don’t already have one. I’m great at what I do, the people I work with are equally great and more-so. Without an excellent PM who is accountable for holding it all together, it almost always loses out somewhere.

You can buy all the software and have all the calls, meetings and emails you like but without a smart person behind it all, cracking the whip it may not work out. With an incredible PM, for almost any individual strategy across most businesses, they don’t need costly software. A spreadsheet and communications is all that they need to keep it moving.

My name is Chris Simmance and I’m addicted to strategy

 

  • Get In Touch

    Chris Simmance, Marketing Consultant and International Keynote Speaker

    me@chrissimmance.com

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When we were looking for a consultant to support us and our business, particularly in an area that changes so rapidly like digital marketing, we decided whoever we worked with needed to bring two characteristics beyond anything else... Time and Truth! Time to understand our business, our teams and our customers. And truth, in the way that any proposed solutions would stand up as practical, actionable and tailored to our objectives. Chris brought these characteristics by the bucket load. Clearly demonstrating he has his fingers on the pulse, he suggested modern and effective tools and techniques designed to help us drive our commercial outcomes. Read More

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