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On the Overuse of “Strategy”

Map: Plan of Campaign and Battle of Bladensburg from Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812   public domain

Map: Plan of Campaign and Battle of Bladensburg from Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 public domain

“Strategy” is overused.

The statement may appear to contradict what I’ve previously blogged about: how strategic thinking has its place at multiple stages of a given process, venture, or undertaking, in helping make decisions, and deciding on future directions to take.

But the perspicacious reader will have noticed the quotation marks around the word “strategy”. I’m not suggesting that strategic methods are overused. If anything, they are not used often enough. No. What I mean is that the word “strategy” is overused. It has become a hold-all word, liberally applied to all manner of contexts and processes, many of which have nothing to do with strategy.  “10 Strategies of Success”, “5 No -fail Strategies for Landing that Job Interview” or even “Our Strategic Vision Statement”.

I remember arriving at one of my first corporate jobs years ago, and seeing a beautifully printed placard hanging in the lunchroom of the corporation. It was labeled “Our Strategic Vision”, and listed things like “to be the industry leader in…”, “to provide top quality product and unparalleled service” and so on.

At the time, I recall thinking “I’m really not sure how this is strategy.” But, being young, and impressed by the gorgeous corporate office, in one of the prestigious towers in downtown Vancouver, I concluded that the higher-ups who presumably had the sign posted and were responsible for the content, must know what they are talking about. I must just be missing something, some key connection that, upon deeper scrutiny, would demonstrate to me how this purported “Strategic Vision” was actually a set of strategies.

The insight never came, of course, because none of the things listed on that placard were strategies. They were goals. 

Strategizing is not goal setting. Nor is strategy a fixed set of methodologies that can be applied to every situation to produce “no fail” outcomes. There is no paint by numbers in strategy, because it is fundamentally situational and it is about action, approach, methodology.

Which isn’t to say that goals aren’t important. But goals are an earlier step in the process. Goals and direction need to be formulated, of course and are essential to the process. You can’t have strategy without knowing what kind of outcome you are seeking. In battle, a strategy that seeks a draw as an outcome will look entirely different to one that is seeking utter victory. Both of these might look different again to a strategy that implements methods that seek key concessions, not on the battlefield itself, but on matters outside of the theatre of war–the ending of an embargo, for instance.

But, once resources, skills and in-house advantages are inventoried, challenges are identified, and goals or outcomes begin to emerge, it’s not enough to pull the goals together, call them strategies and go out for drinks. That is when the strategizing actually begins. That is when it’s time to determine what kind of approach and method you will be using to reach for those goals, and what specific actions will be implemented in support of the method.

That is strategy.

Now, I get why people want to appropriate the term for other purposes. Who wouldn’t want a “no-fail” strategy? It’s a great way to get readers to click through to an article that purports to be on that topic. Unfortunately, such usage creates confusion and the conflation of a number of discrete concepts under the umbrella term “strategy”–and in the process, it erodes the meaning and usefulness of the term itself.


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This entry was posted on July 5, 2014 by in Strategy and tagged , , .
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