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strategist responsibility, strategy

Are you a “strategist”? If so, what’s your definition of strategy?

'Strategy' highlighted in green

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.


13 thoughts on “Are you a “strategist”? If so, what’s your definition of strategy?

  1. Another point I would add is having a BIG picture in mind. A great strategist doesn’t have to win every single battle but have to bring the team to achieve the utimate goal at the lowest expense

    Posted by Katie | April 22, 2013, 10:18 am
  2. I really enjoyed your post, thanks.

    I think strategy also involves an element of execution. Not the actual doing itself, but ensuring that the people who do remain focused on overall plan and objective and don’t get sidetracked into quick wins which turn out to be costly distractions or even traps.

    Given you apparent bent, I would strongly recommend you read Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War if you’ve not already done so. Sun Tzu addresses each of these points in great detail. It takes a little bit of contextualising, though, as he has writing about 2,500 years ago.

    Posted by chriscfox | April 23, 2013, 7:55 am
  3. Excellent description of strategy! Keeping the big picture in mind and having the wherewithal to execute is important for the strategist to succeed. This means constantly adapting to the internal/external environment, gleaning information from data clutter, effective decision making and leadership.

    Posted by Gandhi Chinnadurai | April 23, 2013, 10:05 am
  4. In my opinion, strategy is the the hard choices that a company makes about how to compete in the marketplace (in the widest sense of the words, “how”, “compete” and “marketplace”). The key word in the definition is “hard”; i.e. it’s the choices of where not to compete that make a difference. Many companies think they have a strategy because they decide to be the best in their industry, but fail to articulate how, or the consequences they are willing to take. (PS: In relation to your military analogy, I always find it useful to remember that strategy is what happens before you can see the enemy, tactics is what happens when you can.)

    Posted by Martin Manscher | April 26, 2013, 6:24 am
  5. Very nice perspectives included in here. I am pretty sure there strategy in a broader sense involves a lot of elements that interacting in a crosfunctional way provides reasonable and feasible options to build or rebuild a path. Anyhow, in a broader sense to complement some of the prveious views of peers stated I would like to add by now just that enemies can be some times the best allies in some circumstances such as a convoy stratetegy or an allliance strategy. As usual these are options that might be leveraged for the benefit of all participants.

    Posted by Diego Alvarez | April 26, 2013, 11:32 pm
  6. Strategy is how to design & execute long-term plans and practices to achieve organizational objectives based on a clear vision.

    Posted by Dr.M.Sami ElKhatib | April 29, 2013, 9:30 am
  7. Nicely said and great follow up. Just one more element I would like to toss into the strategy definition salad…TIMING. Never so important as in our internet-connected world in which we now operate. So if I may; “…a strategist must be comfortable with structuring uncertainty using the data available…in real-time”

    Posted by Bob Hebner | April 30, 2013, 12:35 pm
  8. I submit strategy carries (or tries to) a sense of seniority / importance – a social tension implied in the article. So strategists are defined by more than what they do, but also by how they compare to others in the field – to borrow from patent law “someone of skill in the art”. How they are compared is chosen by the community assigning the role, but there must be a lens through which they are viewed as more competent, strong, better, faster, than others in the field.

    Posted by M McKinnon | May 1, 2013, 1:10 pm
  9. Bravo! Excellent explanation. To your point, the term gets thrown around and used incorrectly more often than not, causing confusion, intimidating many from participating in discussions, and ultimately damaging the credibility of leadership.

    Posted by Mary Caywood | May 7, 2013, 10:05 am
  10. Great post and there are some excellent comments made. Nice to see references made to The Art of War and the importance of Timing. This is a topic of great interest to me and I would like to share some thoughts.

    I would have added Patton to your list of generals even though he would not make onto the uncontroversial list. For one very good reason: Leadership! Strategy without leadership and leadership without strategy are as useful as chocolate tea pots. As much as I like the analogies made and I have noted some them down, the definitions of strategy presented seam academic to me and biased towards an planning environment and the execution of a static plan. Articulating a vision and mission and executing a plan against a predefined set of objectives is only 10% of the game. When the chips are down and the theatre of warfare (competitive markets in our case of business) turns against you, you can kiss your static strategy good bye. In these cases the ability to make real time corrective action decisions in the face of overwhelming confusion, creating and seizing moments of opportunity and motivating your team to rally against overwhelming odds is where the leadership component of strategy comes in. A Leader is a servant of strategy and as such is the essential component to adjusting and delivering the strategy. For that reason leadership and strategy need to be inclusive of one another.

    You could take Martin’s argument that this is actually the domain of tactics. But tactics are a subset of strategy and if the strategy is wrong, your ability to execute tactics will have become the strategy. “Good tactics can save even the worst strategy. Bad tactics will destroy even the best strategy.” General George S. Patton.

    Patton also went on to say, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” He knew very well that in the theatre of war, he could overwhelm most uncertainties and make opportunities for himself through front line leadership and violent execution. Maybe this is not so applicable today where technology plays a much bigger role in determining the outcome of military campaigns, but it certainly has merit in highly competitive industries such as consumer electronics, communications and other fast moving technologies. Over 70% of failed strategies (irrespective of industry) are due to poor execution and not necessary bad strategy.

    As a management consultant who also works on strategy, I can say that most of us consultants do not have our boots on the ground when it comes to strategy, we are far too lofty. Some might argue ‘How can we: we are helicopter’d in and out again?’ As a result we will biased strategy towards helping our clients construct lofty plans using all the analytics, business school know how and market insights to make it plausible. ‘Well, is that not the reason they hire us?’ The answer is no! We are hired to serve our clients by putting their interests first, not necessarily doing what they ask from us. If making a great strategic outline is of little merit because our client does not know how to execute, then why are we not addressing the leadership component first? As far as I am concerned leadership is the cornerstone of strategy and we must have no issue addressing it head on with our clients so they understand their constraints to effective execution. Thereafter we can help our clients develop their own strategy. Once they believe in the strategy and take ownership of it, they will have no issues leaving the executive office, rolling their sleaves up to go out into the front lines to see it executed ‘violently’. Most consultant I know regard the success of their engagement as completing client deliverable on time and within budget. If that is your value proposition, then you are neither a strategist nor a strategic consultant and your business is merely a waste of client resources.

    So coming back to the definitions of strategy. this is how I would adapt the definition above.

    Strategy is an overarching intent driving a dynamic set of plans and actions to achieve this intent (or mission). In order to successfully deliver on the intent, a strategist (or leader) must structure uncertainty using the data available, take bold and timely decisions, be prepared to make tactical adjustments to the plans and galvanize teams to relentlessly execute against them thereby mitigating downside risks and creating opportunities for success.

    Posted by Stephan de Clercq | May 13, 2013, 8:08 am
  11. I really enjoyed reading the post and the comments. Being a 2nd Year MBA student and inclining towards Management Consulting, I felt that reading through all this was a real learning experience for me.
    I realise that strategy is more about forseeing the bigger picture and structuing the uncertainity in business, but at the same time I also feel, startegy should be a continual process. I feel in some business uncertainity is so high, that it results in chaning business strategies in very short period of times. This again leads me to think, that will it suitable to also define strategy as dealing with uncertainity in an unstructured way?
    My thoughts may not be much relevant with respect to real time management consulting experience butu as a student I figured it may be good to get some insights on these.

    Posted by Soumadeep Guha | July 6, 2013, 6:56 pm

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