What is strategy?

As I have started to read more and more about strategy, I notice the word itself is often used (and misused). I admit that I’ve been guilty of misusing the word “strategy.” A google search for the word “strategy” turned up 529 million hits.

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Looking at the news turns up head-lines like “Will a new global strategy lift under armor stock?”. Or “Obama repeats strategy in student loan fight.” As you’ll see neither of these headlines accurately use the word “strategy”

Given my need for clarity around what strategy is (and is not), I wanted to devote a post to the subject. As I mentioned previously, I loved Lafley and Martin’s Playing to Win  – it has inspired several posts that I want to share.

What is strategy?

Michael Porter, the father of business strategy, wrote a seminal paper entitled “What is strategy” in 1996. This paper has become the most cited HBR article, ever.

In “What is strategy?” Porter defines strategy as “the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.” There is a lot going on in this definition and Lafley and Martin provide a valuable framework for unpacking Porter.

Lafley and Martin’s take

Building off of Porter’s work, Lafley and Martin, define strategy as

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Strategy is a “set of choices about winning” and as I mentioned in my previous post, “winning” can be a noble aspiration.

Having only read Lafley and Martin’s book a month ago, I have found the question set to be extremely valuable. They represent an easy way to teach yourself and others strategy. One of my favorite antidotes from the book relates to the idea of teaching strategy. This is from A.G. Lafley

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“I was going to teach strategy until P&G was excellent at it.”

Turning the framework on yourself

You’ve read this far and you think, “I don’t run a business” or “I’m in college” or “I’m not a manager.” How can you apply what is in Playing to Win? By applying the framework on yourself – your career, your marriage, your family, etc. Take your career as an example. I’ll use a hypothetical example:  Jen just started at E&Y and she wants to one day become a partner.

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Now Jen has a strategy. She will evaluate choices she has in light of this strategy. Her strategy will help clarify what choices she will make.

What must be true? (WMBT)  – this is a refrain that Roger Martin uses often and is a great way to brainstorm the requirements to successfully execute. I used WMBT to help work out Jen’s strategy.

For example, what must be true for Jen to learn how to sell and bring in business for E&Y? She must learn from the company’s best salespeople. Notice that this is just one answer….there are other answers to the question. The answer could have been, “Jen needs to read the top ten books written on how to sell.” That said, Jen must make a choice, she can’t do an unlimited number of activities in order to become a good salesperson (in this case she could read books AND learn from others at E&Y).  Strategy is a set of choices about winning.

The better the choices, the better the strategy and the more likely that executing on the strategy will lead to the winning aspiration – for Jen, making partner. Also, not making a choice, is a choice.

What is your winning aspiration? And what are the series of choices you are going to make to help ensure that you win?

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One thought on “What is strategy?

  1. Pingback: What is your Strategy? | Jacqui Senn

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