3 Things I Came to Understand about Strategy

Strategy is a pattern in a stream of decisions
— Henry Mintzberg

How come we always make a strategy and then something else happens?  Would we better off without any strategy since nothing we do seems to work? What is a strategy after-all?  - All questions I was asking myself during sleepless nights or during discussions with my colleagues. I knew the difference between strategy and tactic but somehow this "strategy" concept was one that I didn't fully use. Clearly I didn’t understand it completely.

Recently I've been reading a lot about this topic and also clarified my ideas about this topic. I am not claiming to be Sun Tzu but I have evolved my thinking over the years and this is what this post is all about:

The flavours of strategy 

I remember my early entrepreneurial days. Me and my cofounders, crowded in an apartment, making business plans and projections. That's what real business people were supposed to do. "Not planning is planning to fail" they said and we took the advice to the heart. 

We were young and stupid.  One of the things I didn't understand then was the difference between an emergent strategy and a deliberate one. It took me years to understand the difference and a few months ago Clayton Christiansen, of the "Innovator's Dilemma" fame, thought me the terms. Mr Christiansen, in his book "How to measure your life", quoted business scholars Henry Mintzberg and James Waters, who in 1985 published a paper defining two forms of strategies: deliberate and emergent.

I encourage you to read all about it but in lame terms a deliberate strategy is when you know what you're doing and an emergent strategy is when everything is fuzzy and blurry and you have no idea what to do exactly. Yeah: that's a strategy too. When a company makes a strategy to improve the efficiency of factories by 5% year by year you can say that's a deliberate strategy. 

An emergent strategy is following a fuzzy target with no real plan.  Let's say you ask a kid, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” the kid may say, “I want to become an astronaut”, but this strategy is not really rock solid.  I know I kind of stretched it, but it's just the same if you're asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?" at a job interview.  "Who the hell knows?" is probably the right answer, but we all know you didn't use that one. It's the same for new businesses: When we decided to take an order at uberVU for a product we didn't have we didn't because that was the strategy. But that decision showed us how we could generate revenue and brought our first clients. It was an emergent strategy because we based on our response to the daily problems or opportunities that we couldn't foreseen. 

A state of flux

Strategy, even the deliberate type, is not set in stone. Strategy should always be challenged or adjusted.  “Wait . . . what?  If it's deliberate why change it?" I can hear you saying to me. 

You must have long term goals to keep you from being frustrated by short term failures.
— Charles C. Noble

For me a strategy is more about the goal than anything else.  The goal is what matters. The why.  Even when you have tons of facts to back a strategic decision, things may happen. They usually do. And it's the good leaders who adapt their plans to fit the new circumstances. 

Strategy is what is done not said

Strategy is what you do, not what you say you are doing. I like reading all the mission statements published by companies, memos sent by the CEO outlining the new strategy. At the end of the day is about what you and your organization do every day. Steve Balmer was talking about innovation at Microsoft in but he managed the bottom-line. Clearly innovation was not his strategy. When your strategy for the new year is to get in shape but you order pizza at 1AM in the morning you are clearly not following any fitness strategy. 

Don’t fool yourself: having a strategy map is not the same as having a strategy
— Jeroen De Flander

Strategy does not begin or end with a document. No matter how detailed, clear and focused that document is.  However, it's so easy to think this way. I think deep down we believe strategic thinking is about thinking.  Thinking is important, but doing is way more important than that. 

I'll leave you with a quote from Nick Tasler:

Ultimately, strategic thoughts must yield strategic action. . . In spite of the uncertainty, complexity, and the ever-present possibility of failure, a strategic leader must eventually step up and make the call about what the team will and will NOT focus on.