What the heck is strategy ?

I don’t know what is more difficult to get consensus on a definition – “meaning of life” or “strategy” . And I am only partly kidding here 🙂

Vast majority of the literature and talks on strategy are about what it is not , as opposed to what it really is . This was true when I was in business school a couple of decades ago , and it’s still true in the work place debates today . Recently I attended some leadership training at HBS and apparently Professors still love to debate what it is not !

I don’t deny that I enjoy these debates – but with a business to run, I also need simple definitions to do something with it . The reason I am thinking about it one more time is because I have an “all hands” call coming up with my global team in a few days and as it happens every year – I am challenging everything one more time just to make sure I set the team on a good path to success .

So here is how I look at strategy

1. Strategy is a way to get to a set of goals under uncertain conditions and limited resources within a certain period of time

2. It can only be defined at a high level given the uncertainty , and there needs to be a plan for known trade offs

3. The plan to execute on it consequently need to be constantly refined as you learn more over time

4. It needs to be defined at the highest level of an organization since a good strategy needs a lot of decisions on allocation of scarce resources , the goals itself will need to be questioned , and the result of those decisions has to serve as a compass (as opposed to a map) for the rest of the team as they execute on it

5. It should leave plenty of room to improvise during execution.

The goals are fairly straight forward for the business I lead . Where I need to temper my enthusiasm is how many of those goals can I map to a bottoms up plan . It’s very easy to make too many assumptions and become over confident in attaining those goals – but that would be ignoring the simple idea that there is no strategy if there is no uncertainty ! The trick is to minimize uncertainty instead of eliminating it .

Then there is the constraint of limited resources . I have swung on either extremes of “constraints are good” VS “unconstrained is good” over the years . These days I am a believer that it’s best to acknowledge constraints right upfront – but then start challenging them from first principles to see if they are as real as they appear . When we don’t acknowledge real constraints , we end up saying ridiculous things like “it was a great strategy, but execution failed us”.

All strategies have an expiration date and I realize that over time – the shelf life is becoming shorter . What seems to work for me is an annual overhaul with quarterly tweaks . If operational results trend the wrong way – I don’t wait for the next year to overhaul the strategy though 🙂

The easiest way to communicate a strategy for me is in the form of a plan . Too high level and it gives the feeling of a “slogan on a banner” which gets you not a lot more than eye rolls . Too much detail and it gets tedious for everyone . So I run it by a few people to iterate and get it to a decent enough shape . No magic bullets have been found so far !

Iterations come in all sizes and are triggered by multiple factors . The most common reason is the variance during execution. But there could be really big factors like the economy going into a recession . The key here is to keep an eye for detail on operations, while also scanning the environment for changes .

Zooming in and out constantly takes a lot of time and energy – and this is one of the many reasons why you should constantly grow more leaders in your team. The more (and better) leaders you groom – the more you can focus yourself on fewer high impact decisions .

The last point I want to make here is on leaving room for everyone to make decisions during execution . There is no creativity in following explicit and prescriptive directions all the time . This is why I like to think of my job as providing a compass and not a map . Unless your team develops skills to make their own plans – and intelligently change them as required along the way – they will not develop as leaders !


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

One thought on “What the heck is strategy ?

  1. This is great Vijay. Many a times, loss is between keeping the strategy simple ( with lot of assumptions ) vs keeping execution straight forward ( with no consideration of constraints ). Constantly swinging to keep the balance needs the focus, zoom in and out as you have called it.
    Keep writing !


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