As of late, when responding to the question, “What do you do for a living?” with, “I am a Strategy Consultant”, the immediate next question is “Can you explain to me in simple terms, what is strategy?” It’s a great question and I enjoy responding to it – especially to those who think they got me!
In my humble opinion, strategy is a term that is thrown around a lot and somewhat recklessly. It’s a word that is used rarely in the right context, but with a much higher frequency used inappropriately. Regardless, what’s my definition of ‘strategy’ you ask? Well, let me give you some history on how I got to my definition before giving it away.
The word ‘strategy’ is rooted in history from a military context. In French, the word ‘strategie’ means “the art of a general” and in Greek ‘strategia’ means “office or command of a general”. Knowing this, in order to transplant the word into a business context, we need to understand the responsibilities of a military general and highlight the important dimensions that align with strategy. In history, we have quite a few examples of famous military generals – to name a few (and excluding the controversial ones), Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Gaius Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ulysses S. Grant. If what these individuals did was considered strategy (according to the French and Greek definitions of the word), in my humble opinion, the following four key dimensions summarize the role of a strategist (regardless of the function; e.g., organization, marketing, finance, operations, etc.)
Deal with uncertainty – When going after a new result or mission, military generals are faced with a lot of uncertainty. What’s our next move? Where should we attack? What do we think the enemy is doing? What do we think the enemy will be doing? And so goes on the list of questions with limited answers. Similar to generals, strategists are responsible for managing and tackling uncertainty in the business context. Strategists should be comfortable dealing with uncertainty but pose good questions (with hard to find answers) to structure the uncertainty.
Find insightful data – After asking all the tough questions, military generals try source and mine any and all relevant data (e.g., intelligence from spies, topical maps, etc.) to identify key insights – no different from a strategist. It is the duty of a strategist to find relevant data and identify key insights that bring clarity to the uncertainty.
Define the result (or mission) – Armed with insights, military generals define the mission to achieve some new result – examples include, expanding east for Alexander the Great, taking Fort Belmont for Ulysses S. Grant, or breaking up the Third Coalition for Napoleon. Similarly, it is the responsibility of strategists to use the gleaned insights to define the new result for the organization – examples include, reduce operational costs, increase revenue through product innovation, or improve marketing ROI.
Articulate the plan and action – Finally, military generals are responsible for defining a plan and taking action – this typically involves knowing what resources are available, defining how they plan to use those resources, and ultimately, using those resources to achieve the mission. Similarly, strategists must mash up the identified insights, the mission, and the resources provided and 1) articulate a vision, 2) define “big, hairy, audacious” goals, and 3) set clear objectives to march the organization’s resources forward.
So, in one sentence, what is Strategy? To me, strategy is the the plan and the set of actions to achieve some new result (or mission). In order to do this, a strategist must be comfortable with structuring uncertainty using the data available.
As always, thank you for your time and look forward to your feedback.