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Strategy 102: What a Strategy is not!

  Samer K. Taher | Managing Director

  3rd March, 2015

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The term “strategy” may not be the most used buzzword in management nowadays but I am pretty sure it ranks among the most popular. And why not? The term is so spicy, it adds flavor to any report it gets sprinkled on and, it is so fluid it can be used in almost any context. You have people-related (HR) strategies, marketing strategies, growth and sales strategies, finance and investment strategies, “go green” and environmental strategies, retirement strategies, and the list goes on.

And that is not such a bad thing. For, the term is critical to success and its presence can mitigate risk of failure. What is annoying is that the term is so misunderstood it gets used interchangeably with its cousins: plan, goal, objective, target, tactic, mission, vision, operation, etc. 

What makes matters even more confusing is that the term does not have a proper synonym in many common languages. In Latin – which is the origin of the word, the term is known as ‘strategia’. In French, it’s  ‘strategie‘; in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, it’s ‘estrategia’. Even in Turksih, Albanian and Danish, the word translates to ‘strateji’, ‘strategji’, and ‘strategi’, respectively. And in Arabic, yup, it’s also ‘stratijiyah’! No wonder, the term is so misinterpreted!

So what is a strategy? And what differentiates it from its cousins above?

The most effective approach I found in defining a strategy is first by debunking some of the strategy-related myths which have been floating for a while and defining what strategy IS NOT. Once that is taken care of, the meaning of the word will emerge!

A strategy is not a plan because a plan is a series or set of steps (with pre-defined milestones), sequential or concurrent, which once implemented may help achieve a certain…objective or goal. A strategy includes a plan but is much more than that!

A strategy is not a vision because a vision is a challenging dream, realizable from a certain perspective, set by an individual or an organization.  Strategies are not dreams but vehicles for such. A strategy will have a vision but is much more than that.

A strategy is not a mission for a mission is a description of why a company exists and what its value proposition is. While a good strategy will have a mission; it is much more than that! 

A strategy is not a goal because a goal is a final desired state which gets achieved or not. A strategy gets implemented or executed rather than achieved. A strategy includes goals but is much more than that! 

A strategy is not an objective, because like a goal, an objective is a goal with a clear unit of measure and a target date. A strategy encompasses goals but is much more than that!

A strategy is not a target, because a target is a number, plain and simple. When one is asked about a target, the answer is invariably a figure or a time or a date.  A strategy includes targets but is much more than that!

A strategy is not a tactic because a tactic is a minor action or maneuver designed to help achieve an intermediate gain or avoid a loss. A strategy has built-in tactics but is much more than that!

A strategy is not necessarily long-term. In fact, a strategy is not time-bound. When two soccer teams play, their coaches follow a certain strategy which means that a strategy can be written for very short periods of time – in this case: ninety minutes.  A strategy depends on time-bound milestones but is much more than that.

A strategy is not a back-up or contingency plan because such plans are used only if and when necessary and strategies are not written for if-and-when scenarios but more for what-if situations. Therefore, a strategy will always comprise contingency plans but is much more than that.

So what is a strategy if not any of the above – quite simply, a strategy is a combination of all the above.

A strategy is a combination of plans and back up plans (contingencies) with a set of goals and objectives bound by specific milestones and targets aimed at helping an organization achieve a challenging vision or a demanding set of goals.

Voila!