Need to Define Your Strategy? Use a Dictionary
I was working with a business leader recently on some challenges her business was facing. After trying to understand the root cause of her problems, I said, “It sounds like we need to define your strategy” She looked up from her cup of coffee with a perplexed look on her face and asked, “What do you mean define strategy?” To her credit, she is a health practitioner who like so many of her colleagues has found herself running a business without ever really being taught how. However, her response to my suggestion isn’t unique to non-MBAs. I’m surprise at how frequently leaders and executives perceive the term “defining strategy” as jargon. I know this because of the look on their faces, their body language and the things they say when I speak to them about defining strategy. Someone will sit back in their chair with folded arms and another will say, “What do you mean define our strategy? We have a strategy” or “Come on! Do you know how many times we’ve been through that?” or “We just reexamined our strategy six months ago.” All of these statements tell me that they didn’t really define their strategy or I wouldn’t be there.
One of the most used apps on my phone is the Dictionary.com app. So, when my client asked, “what do you mean define strategy?” I opened the app and pulled up the word define, here is what it says.
- To state or set forth the meaning of
- To explain or identify the nature or essential qualities of
- To fix or lay down clearly and definitely; specify distinctly
- To determine or fix the boundaries or extent of
I love how perfectly it outlines the process for defining strategy. However, leaders often stop after the first point, they state the strategy and feel like they have defined it. Yet, in order to truly define strategy, we must work through all four aspects of the definition. Here are some ways that you can turn this definition into a process for defining your strategy.
- State or set forth the meaning of
Leaders often “state or set forth the meaning of” strategy through a lens at the 20,000 ft level, because it makes sense for their type of work. The difficulty is that a strategy which has been defined at the 20,000 ft level doesn’t help much if I’m at the ground level making tactical decisions. For strategy to truly be defined in the organization, it has to be defined in a way that is meaningful to those who are executing (as the saying goes, “from management on up, it’s all talk”). This requires starting at the 20,000 ft level, but then using the lenses others see the organization through. The two criteria I recommend to state or set forth strategy is that it must be compelling enough to motivate and specific enough to guide choices. So, state or set forth the meaning of your strategy through an articulated statement using more than just one lens and then recognize this is just the start of defining strategy.
- Explain or identify the nature or essential qualities of
Typically leaders have spent tens if not hundreds of hours defining their strategy, so to them it is clear and understood. What they often neglect to see is that when they read their articulated strategy, they aren’t just reading one or two sentences, they are remembering the discussions, the disagreements, how and why they arrived at that definition. So, to the executive who has had hundreds of hours to think about what it means, the nature or essential qualities are clear. When the executive reads the words “customer service” in their articulated strategy, they remember the discussion about how the leaders envisioned customer service as speed to resolution. However, the employee who is provided the strategy in an articulated statement hasn’t been a part of those discussions and hasn’t spent hundreds of hours thinking about it, so when they read the words “customer service” they are forced to interpret it in their own way. The way they interpret “customer service” likely isn’t the same as the leaders who wrote it. For example, rather than “speed to resolution”, they may envision customer service as the “customer is always right”. This is why the aspect of explaining or identifying the nature or essential qualities is so critical. Leaders should go back to their articulated strategy and clearly describe the essential qualities. Instead of saying “customer service”, say “customer service through speed to resolution, etc., etc.” this way the nature and essential qualities are clear to others. This is what I mean by being specific enough to guide choices.
- To fix or lay down clearly and definitely
Leaders who stop at the first or second aspect of the definition for “defining”, neglect to consider that strategy is defined by the organization through a complex set of metrics, rewards, culture, leadership and communication. So, even if the strategy has been stated, set forth, explained and the essential qualities identified – if the metrics, rewards, culture, leadership and communication don’t reinforce the strategy, it hasn’t really been “defined” in the sense that it is not fixed in place. The way that we fix or lay down clearly and definitely is by embedding it in the organization through mechanisms such as metrics, rewards, leadership, etc. Returning to our example of customer service, even when the articulated strategy says “customer service through speed to resolution”, if the metrics that are tracked are how frequently the customer got their way, the metrics (especially if attached to rewards) will define the strategy more powerfully than how it has been articulated. The strategy has to be fixed or laid down clearly and definitely through the available organizational levers.
- To determine or fix the boundaries or extent of
This is by far the most overlooked aspect of defining strategy and is just as important as each of the other aspects. Many leaders spend so much time and effort defining what strategy is, that they never make it to the boundaries…what it isn’t. Think about it, strategy is all about guiding people’s choices and you guide people’s choices by helping them see both where to go and where not to go. But it’s even more than that, boundaries should exist in the form of conscious statements of what we won’t do. A great example is a clinic I recently worked with whose strategy was around providing the highest quality and most advanced treatment available. After much discussion, one of the boundaries they fixed in place was, “we will not sell on price”. Without this boundary, employees felt conflicted when recommending treatment for patients, feeling pressure to match the price of lower cost providers as well as provide the best treatment available. This statement in the form of a boundary reinforces that their strategic priority is on highest quality and advanced treatment, which frees employees to deliver on this strategy without the pressure of competing on price.
So, next time you need to define strategy, go ahead and open a dictionary and let it guide you through the process.