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Goal Setting
Frans Riemersma, 15 Aug '16

Strategy Formulation - Two Definitions of ‘Strategy’, One Source of Confusion

Strategy formulation can be hard. "Are we not speaking the same language?" Acknowledge the different perspectives on what 'strategy' means exactly, and breeze through strategy meetings.

Conversations about what the strategy is can seem endless, as if everyone involved is just speaking different languages. You’d be lucky to get to a stage where everybody understands each other.

Chances are half of the meeting’s attendees think their work is done, while the other half claims you haven’t even really started yet. Both parties are confused, while both parties are correct, arguably.

Here’s how you can get out of this predicament, and what you should do to demystify strategy formulation.

Everyone for president?!

For a strategy implementation project, I did a short interview with a lady that was creating web banners. I asked her what her job entails, to which she answered, “I am responsible for web banner strategy”.

Really? It seems like everyone is in strategy nowadays. Everyone for president! Why not? Paradise on earth.

To me it seemed clear she was just performing tasks rather than formulating strategy. The reply stayed with me for years…

Only recently I’ve discovered why strategy formulation is so hard. The root of all confusion is that in different levels in the organization, people use two distinctly different definitions of ‘strategy’, rather carelessly presuming they are talking about the same thing.

People use that same mystic word ‘strategy’ to describe two different things. Which kind of ‘strategy’ is the subject of discussion on any given day is never crystal clear. Luckily, the organizational level you’re at could be a decent indication.

Usually, management uses one definition, and their teams use the other. So there are what we might call Management Strategies and Execution Strategies, and they are not the same.

If you want to be able to create rock solid, executable SMART Strategies, you have to get your terminology straight. Here’s how.

Management Strategy and Execution Strategy

So there are two definitions. There is a clear difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘strategy’.

One strategy is about executing tasks. The other strategy is about defining goals.
 One is a checklist, the other is a goal hierarchy.

According to Wikipedia,  the definition of strategy is:

 A high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty.

Sounds like a Management Strategy to me.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s this little framework I occasionally come across.

Goal           – Win the war.

Objective   – Conquer country A, B and C in 6 months.

Strategy     – Attack uphill.

Tactics       – Fat guys behind rocks, skinny ones behind trees.

In this example, the ‘strategy’ is just a task. It is an activity performed by the (internal) team measured as binary.

A goal, on the other hand, is a result in the (external) market measured on a scale. And you need both to succeed.

You cannot expect to win a war by telling your people to just “attack up hill” and expect them to efficiently distribute their cannons or to even be fighting the right enemy, for that matter.

a Management Strategy is a collection of objectives and goals.
 An Executions Strategy is a series of tasks you need to perform to reach those objectives. A Management Strategy can best be visualized in a tree structure to harmoniously prioritize goals, while for an Execution Strategy a simple checklist usually suffices.

Management execution strategy difference
Acknowledge different views, then align them

So, the first thing to do before you commence any strategy meeting is...

  • Figure out who’s holding which definition of ‘strategy’.

Acknowledge the problem first. Acknowledge that there are two conceptions to take into account in your planning.

Then, all you have to do is..

  • Align Management Strategy with Execution Strategy.

Make sure the tasks defined in the Execution Strategy all add up to achieving the goals defined in the Management Strategy.