Strategy Lies

Most leaders love strategy.

Laying out plans and priorities for future results is fascinating and oh-so appealing. It offers a sense of accomplishment right now for things that may not happen for years. 

So much of what has been provided under the banner of leadership training and development is rooted in the idea that the right strategy is the secret to success. If everybody’s doing it, it must work!

Of course it doesn’t.

Real life has a funny way of interrupting our well designed plans and forcing us to adjust, improvise, or abandon what made perfect sense not too long ago. Plans change. People change. Circumstances change.

So we assess the changes and redevelop our strategy again. And again. And again. And so it goes.

The problem isn’t that our strategies are wrong, and it certainly isn’t that we shouldn’t have strategy. The problem is that we don’t want to accept the reality that strategy is tenuous.

Strategy gives a false sense of control, but real leadership requires adaptability.

Within the Strategy/Execution/Culture trio, Execution is always shifting to circumstances. Culture should be mostly stable. Strategy is somewhere in between. It doesn’t get tossed by every wave, but it must respond to changing sea conditions.

With this understanding we can be intentional about approaching Strategy in ways that are useful and realistic:

1. Don’t get hung up in the details. A strategic plan is not a business plan; it is a broader set of priorities and intentions that get worked out at the granular level by each working group on a daily basis. It outlines the field of play but doesn’t diagram every sequence of activity.

2. Write strategy in ink, not in stone. Execution can be recorded on a white board, Strategy is significantly more lasting, but certainly not permanent. Carve culture into the trees and walls of your organization.

3. Develop Strategy in context. Strategic planning is neither idealism nor pessimism. It is better understood as crafting the next chapters of a longer story connecting your organization’s entire past with your hopes for the future. In fact, I use a visual timeline process as the core of my strategic planning process. It engages people far more effectively than a stodgy budgeting exercise.

4. Hold Strategy close, but not tight. A strategic plan that lives untouched on a shelf or hard drive is useless. It needs to be simple enough to be referenced often in decision making. It also needs to be understood as imperfect and open to adjustment or even wholesale change if necessary.

None of this is new insight, but it may be a needed reminder for leaders who are craving stability and certainty in a constantly shifting reality. Don’t fall for the lie that Strategy = Control. It never really did, and it absolutely never will.

What are the key things you keep in mind when working on your Strategy?