We can find hundreds of definitions associated with strategy, to the extent that some may contradict one another. The most common one, proposed by the Cambridge Dictionary, defines ‘strategy’ as: “A detailed plan for achieving success in situations such as war, politics, business, industry, or sport, or the skill of planning for such situations”.
We prefer another definition. One by Jonathan Stark, as we believe it better illustrates what strategy really entails: “Strategy is a concise, high-level approach to achieving an objective by playing strengths against weaknesses in an unexpected way”.
To better explain what that refers to:
- You have an objective – for example, ‘destroy the Death Star’;
- Your strategy to reach that objective may be to ‘take the Empire off guard by sending an absurdly small force to exploit a critical vulnerability;
- Your tactics to succeed could be to ‘send 3 small squadrons of x-wings out. Have them get close to the surface of the space station and head for the exhaust port. Stay deep in the approach trench to avoid surface guns. Once the TIE fighters show up, have two x-wings flank the leader and defend against enemy fire’;
When you look at the two above definitions side by side, it becomes clear that the Cambridge definition illustrates more what tactics are, rather than strategy. For the rest of this article, we will follow Stark’s definition.
Breaking it down
Now that we know how to define strategy, how do we build one?
- You start with a concise, high-level approach – you don’t need 4 paragraphs, what you want to say can be down to one sentence.
- Leverage your strengths against your weaknesses – identify what are your strengths and gain insights from your weaknesses. In business, that would normally be an opportunity in the market, customers’ pain points, or an under-serviced problem.
- Your strengths are key. It’s important to know what makes you unique, what is the x-factor that you can use to your advantage.
That’s how you strategize. To come up with the ideal strategy, a business would usually choose either of 2 sources: the external or the internal.
The External source
The most popular way to start strategizing can be to contact a Big Three or a strategy consulting firm and have them help the business get planning. Once hired, they will run an audit to identify internal strengths and weaknesses, and compile industry reports to help find new opportunities or weaknesses in the market. In addition, their main consultant will take it on himself to suggest what changes need to happen, what should be restructured, who should be fired or hired, and what are the next steps for the business.
If the company has the internal resources to understand and leverage the recommended strategy and the $ to hire the consulting firm, then it can be a great option. Nevertheless, it still has its flaws:
- No responsibility – If the strategy fails, management can feel safe to claim that since it had been planned by third-parties, they have no fault.
- Not as effective – Following a strategy that has been planned externally can lead to misunderstandings. If people don’t know why they are doing what they are doing, the strategy may not end up being as effective.
- Lack of support – While the strategy might be fully supported on the surface, some important stakeholders could disagree and if they don’t support it, things may slow down and the strategy is more likely to fail.
- Internal sabotage – People who will disagree with the strategy could go as far as to intentionally sabotage this initiative or worse, do so unintentionally.
Overall, hiring a third-party to come up with a strategy has its advantages and risks, and should be used as an option with care and an understanding that it can’t be a guaranteed success.
The Internal source
How did Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Steve Jobs, Genghis Khan, or Winston Churchill come up with a successful strategy? They most definitely didn’t use McKinsey. They all focused on using their talent, education, and strong insights, and would be able to get into the right headspace to find a solution to their problems. What they all have in common was that they listened to their own intuition, experience, intellect, and deductions first and foremost.
This is done even nowadays, with companies tapping into their internal insights to create effective strategies. Every business already has access to a gold mine of insights, which lies in its people, customers, leaders, and market.
Hypnosis is used as a way to relax and switch off the conscience to really dig into the brain and find some clarity. That’s not something that can easily be done without the assistance of a professional. In psychotherapy, one is guided through specific challenges where the therapist will pose specific questions to help the patient find answers by himself. That level of empowerment is key to progress and heal.
Similarly, in business, hiring a brand strategist equipped with experience and the right framework can help leaders in businesses identify problems that need solving and the best ways to move forward. Their assistance can lead to discovering new strengths, identifying customers’ pain points and needs that have been overlooked, and provide a space to better understand what makes their products/services and business so unique to finally formulate a powerful strategy.
This process leads to one of the most important aspects of strategy: positioning. More about this in the next post.