That’s a lot of strategy!
Or maybe not. Maybe the issue is that most strategists work on tactics rather than strategy. Which makes sense — you always need to ladder your tactics up to some strategy somewhere and strategists are uniquely suited to doing that. But without a working definition, I think (because I see it happen too often) that both strategists and clients can confuse tactics for strategy. The obvious problem there is that the tactical plan might not address a client’s true strategic needs, and that has all sorts of downstream implications.
We’ll talk about some of those in a bit. For now, let me walk you through how I came up with my own working definition.
Introducing Blair Enns
Blair Enns spent several decade in new business and account management for some of the world’s largest advertising agencies, before leaving to start his own company Win Without Pitching.
On his Win Without Pitching blog, Enns writes “a hobby of mine for many years now has been collecting answers to the question ‘What is strategy?’ Strategy to a designer is the thinking that precedes and wraps the design solution. Strategy to a CEO is a series of decisions across all aspects of the organization that leads to a sustainable marketplace advantage and corresponding long-term ﬁnancial success.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but before we do let’s meet Michael Porter.
Introducing Michael Porter
Michael Porter is the founder of the modern strategy ﬁeld, the author of 19 books and maybe a gazillion articles, plus he’s the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School. His reputation is such that when he speaks, business leaders listen.
Arguing against what a lot of people call strategy, Porter declares that it is not:
- A vision or mission: “Our strategy is to change the world by…”
- Aspirations or goals: “Our strategy is to be the leader in…”
- Actions or tactics: “Our strategy is to engage consumers through…”
Instead, Porter claims that strategy is about competing to be unique, not competing to be the best. “The worst error in strategy,” he says, “is to compete with rivals on the same dimensions.”
According to Porter, a strategy should focus on:
- A unique value proposition compared to other orgs
- A different tailored value chain
- Clear tradeoffs, and choosing what not to do
- Activities that ﬁt together and reinforce each other
- Strategic continuity with continual improvement
While each bullet point is crucial to Porter’s definition, the words unique and different do the heavy lifting there.
Where Enns and Porter Agree
Enns comes at the idea of being unique from a different angle, namely that differentiation should be the goal of creative practitioners and that only comes through expertise.
“Expertise is the only valid basis for differentiating ourselves from the competition,” he writes in The Win Without Pitching Manifesto. “Not personality. Not process. Not price.”
I’ll have a lot to say about expertise later. For now, let me explain how I lean into uniqueness and differentiation as the foundation for my working definition of strategy.
Getting to a Simple Definition
Anyone who’s worked with me over the years has heard me utter the phrase ‘simple is hard.’
By that I mean that anyone can come up with a complicated explanation for complicated things, but it takes hard work to come up with the simplest explanation possible for complicated things, especially one that can survive years of stress testing.
Why focus on simple? Because IMHO the most useful ideas stick with us when they are short, sharp, and memorable. Complex jargon has the opposite effect, pushing people away from understanding the concept we’re trying to get across. Sometimes that’s on purpose. I’ve met my fair share of people who use jargon to demonstrate their superior expertise or hide the lack of same.
But since my entire career has been about communicating complicated ideas as clearly as I can to colleagues, clients and customers, the idea of keeping it simple has naturally trickled down into how I work. So because Porter’s definition is a bit too jargony for my taste, over the years I’ve refined it to this:
- A sustainable plan to succeed
- By meeting a customer need
- Using a unique approach
- That’s hard for competitors to copy
Simple and succinct, but useful in developing, say, a content or CRM strategy because you know right away your goal is to start with a differentiated product or position, one that sends a clear signal to the right audience in a marketplace full of noise.