August 9, 2020

A More Useful Definition Of Strategy

Moving from implementation work to strategy work is a great way to increase the profitability of your business.

But you can’t effectively sell or deliver strategy offerings if you don’t really understand what the word strategy means.

If you asked ten people, “What is strategy?” you’d probably get back ten different answers.

Odds are that most of them would be ACCURATE, but precious few would be USEFUL.

Answers like:

These are good answers. They are not wrong. They are accurate. But do they deepen your understanding of what a good strategy is or how to create one?

If not, then I think it would be useful to have something a little more specific.


How do we define the word strategy in a more useful way?

The most useful definition I’ve been able to come up with is something I cobbled together from personal experience and reading the amazing book Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt.

Here it is:

Strategy is a concise, high-level approach to achieving an objective by playing strengths against weaknesses in an unexpected way.

The editor in me wants to trim this definition down a bit, but after careful consideration, I believe that every word in it is indispensable.

The statement breaks in two roughly equal parts:

1. What a good strategy is—i.e., “A concise, high-level approach to achieving an objective...”

2. How to create a good strategy—i.e., “ playing strengths against weaknesses in an unexpected way”

Let’s break it down even more:

Concise—A good strategy needs to be memorable and easy to communicate. The longer it is, the less likely it’ll be understood and/or remembered.

High-level Approach—A strategy is not a list of tasks or actions (i.e., tactics). Tactics are important and they do result from a strategy, but they are not the strategy itself.

(ASIDE: I wanted to say “high-level plan” here but I have found that the word “plan” is too easily interpreted as “a list of tactics” which would increase confusion so I rejected it.)

To Achieving An Objective—If you don’t have an objective, it’d be impossible to create a strategy. Strategy can’t exist in the absence of an objective. That’d be like trying to answer the question, “How should we?”

(ASIDE: And if you don’t have a strategy, you sure as heck shouldn’t be wasting time and money on tactics.)

By Playing Strengths—In any given situation, you have certain assets or skills or qualities that are advantageous. They might be liabilities in another context, but they are advantages in this context.

Against Weaknesses—In any given situation, your opponent or obstacle or challenge or market will always have some vulnerability or weakness or limitation or gap. The implication here is that you need to have enough situational awareness to recognize it.

In An Unexpected Way—I considered removing this phrase from my definition of strategy, but every example I found of a really great strategy contained an element of surprise. Specifically, an insight that was both totally unexpected but immediately obvious in retrospect.

ASIDE: Maybe a strategy in a low-stakes situation doesn’t need an element of surprise but I think in a high-stakes situation, it is probably make or break.

Having written all this, I have to admit the subjectivity of the premise - i.e., to provide a “useful” definition of the word strategy. Whether something is useful or not is totally subjective.

This definition has been useful to me, and I hope it’ll be useful to you.