“Become the leader in our industry” is not a strategy

Strategy and goals aren’t the same thing.
Strategy and goals aren’t the same thing.
Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su
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The root of most strategy challenges is simple–too many managers don’t know what strategy is. And if you think this is a problem plaguing only new managers at lower levels of the organization, think again. During my work as a strategy consultant, I’ve collected dozens of so-called “strategies” from CEOs that aren’t strategies at all, including:

  • Become the global leader in our industry.
  • Use innovation to build customer-centric solutions.
  • Grow our audience.
  • Execute integration and capture synergies.
  • Strengthen the core business and reduce costs.

These so-called strategies are actually goals, tactics, or objectives. And the distinction is important.

Goals and objectives are what we’re trying to achieve. A goal is what we’re trying to achieve in general (“win the national sales contest for our region”), and an objective is what we’re trying to achieve specifically ( “achieve $25 million in sales by the end of the third quarter”). Objectives tend to use the acronym SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

Strategy and tactics are how to get there. Strategy is how we’re going to get there generally (“focus selling efforts on expanding share of wallet with current customers”); tactics are how we’ll get there specifically (“have district sales managers work with sales reps to schedule appointments with the top five customers for each territory; videotape three customers using two or more of our products in combination; purchase iPads so new shell sheets and videos can be use in customer presentations”).

It is easy to see that a lack of clarity around these definitions can derail execution before it begins because people will be working in different directions.

So, how can you overcome the confusion and misunderstanding that surrounds strategy?  Here are three tips:

Stop mixing words: Since strategy is an abstract term, it’s challenging enough to define it without combining it with other words to make it that much more confusing. Many companies use terms such as “strategic goals” and “strategic objectives.” Why? Goals and objectives are different than strategies, so cramming the words together into one term only serves to muddy the waters. Keep your plan simple by using the right word, and only the word, that you mean.

Stop making things up: Terms like “strategic imperatives” or “business drivers” are not foundational planning terms. And because they are not foundational concepts, they can be interpreted in lots of different ways. This can lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misdirection. When planning, use real words, not made-up ones.

Stop pretending: If a leader in your company passes down a strategy that isn’t really a strategy, stop pretending it is. Correct it! Choose the right forum and appropriate time to talk to leadership about how to modify their statement to more accurately reflect a strategy.

Only when your team has a common language for strategic thinking and planning will you be able to forge a path to the business results you seek. Take the steps above to create that shared understanding, and you’ll be on the road to success.

This article was adapted from StrategyMan vs. The Anti-Strategy Squad: Using Strategic Thinking to Defeat Bad Strategy and Save Your Plan.