Though we often use the words interchangeably, being “intentional” and being “strategic” are two different things.
Intention is a thing intended; an aim or plan.
Strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
Right now, we’re in a continual news cycle of organizational leaders who find themselves having to explain a business practice or policy that has led to an “unintended” outcome. Recent examples include Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the lack of diversity at Uber, and two black men being arrested at Starbucks. I’d argue these situations are often the result of an assumption that an intended goal would be reached without a well-developed strategy.
Although intention, by its very definition, is deliberate, there is no assurance of direction or forward movement. Intention is only a first step.
In my own life, I’ve found that intentionality without strategy can quickly devolve into chaos. I can intentionally do something, but without a strategic reason for doing it, I’m less likely to have thought about process and outcomes and I’m chasing my tail with no good reason why. So I’m “working”; putting in effort, but to what end? Organizations aren’t necessarily different in this respect: Intended outcomes are only meaningful and worth pursuing if used to lay the framework for strategy.
As an advocate for improving inclusion and diversity, I often encounter technical organizations, communities, and events that support the “idea” or “intention” of diversity of thought. But very few of them are capable of reaching any meaningful outcomes, because most efforts are guided by intention alone. This has resulted in a number of businesses that are beginning to experience the frustration and fatigue that inevitably follows when intentions for change lack strategy for operationalizing and measuring outcomes. As Atlassian’s global head of diversity and belonging Aubrey Blanche put it: “People are tired of talking about diversity and inclusion, frustrated by talk not turning into impactful action, and overwhelmed by the number of issues to address and the scope of what must change.”
It is not that intentions are “fake,” bad, or unnecessary. It is at this stage where ideas take form and creativity abounds. It’s just that without the guidance of strategy, intention can miss the mark, often resulting in a workforce or community that is tired, disillusioned, and cynical.
In the case of inclusion and diversity, without a thought out and tested strategy, well-meaning individuals often find themselves having to face the consequences of an initiative that at best is unwelcoming and at worst, harms the very groups of individuals they saw to include. Without strategies that enable us to test and measure the effectiveness of our ideas we end up acting on assumptions like those held by Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher at the center of the Cambridge Analytica mess, “The belief in Silicon Valley and certainly our belief at that point was that the general public must be aware that their data is being sold and shared and used to advertise to them.” It is these kinds of fundamentally flawed assumptions and their unfortunate outcomes, on the part of business and community leaders, that scream for a need to partner intention with informed strategies, in order to mitigate potential harm.
Designing efforts to improve the experiences of traditionally excluded populations is a process that requires patience, forethought, and a developed strategy that has considered how to counter for a system of privilege, bias, racism, and outright discrimination. Success in these areas requires leaders to go beyond intention and opt for strategy: That means reaching out to employees, partners, customers, clients, and community members to discover the issues that matter to them and, as Aubrey Blanche states, “listen to them about the solutions even for little things — their expertise is valuable.” Then use their feedback as guidance to set intention and develop strategies that remove barriers and provide groups with the experiences that enable them to thrive.