What is strategy?

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I can be a stickler for words. Which makes sense, given my role and interest in communications, marketing and media relations.

Beyond the professionalism of ‘words matter’, it’s also their impact. And their change in meaning that can lessen (or create more) impact.

Strategy has always been one of those fickle words for me. Chaos, doily and moist fall into that same fickle bucket.

Strategy–and its many derivations–seems to have taken on a world of its own.

I’m disappointed that, as business professionals, we’re confusing strategy with operations and tactics.

The way we looked at strategy back in the day, both in business school and throughout my professional career:

  • Tactical: Execution. Individuals or within business units. < 1 year focus.
  • Operational: Short-term planning. Across business units. 1-3 year focus.
  • Strategic: Long-term planning. Across the company. > 3 year focus.

I also think of these efforts or responsibilities as typical roles within a company:

  • Individual contributor: Tactical
  • Manager: Operational
  • Executive: Strategic

There’s a natural handoff between the three responsibilities (or roles):

  • Tactical: Works within themselves; Reports to manager role
  • Operational: Ensure tactical measures are being executed while managing up to ensure short-term plans are being met; Reports to both individual contributor and executive teams
  • Strategic: Continues to look ahead at shifts in the market; Leverages insights from managers to ensure they are moving the company in the right direction; Reports to board and/or public (customers, audiences, press, etc.)

To make things easier on me, I think of these in soccer terms:

  • Tactical: Offense
  • Operational: Midfield
  • Strategic: Defense

In the case of soccer, what happens when the offense plays defense? Or vice versa? Sure, that happens in transition or in short spurts. However, that doesn’t make a lot of sense during a full 90+ minutes or a full season.

And in business, what happens when a tactical role takes on a strategic role? Or vice versa?

Stuff gets messed up.

We’re not extracting the value from the role we’re supposed to be in.

Defining strategy

A few attempts at defining strategy:

Create the long-term plan: How to take the brand from where it is today to where it wants to go

Strategy takes what you want to achieve and develops a plan to get there. From strategy you can develop tactics and implement them.

…in order to make sense of all the detail in the object level, the focus must shift to the meta level: general principles of business strategy, like knowledge of how markets work, where power tends to accrete in value chains, and the forces that drive consumer and organizational behavior.

A strategy without a plan is a vision without action, and a plan without a strategy is just a set of tactics.

I don’t know if any one of these truly captures the definition of strategy. Maybe it’s easier to define strategy by what it is not (operational, tactical).

Or, maybe we follow the same application Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart applied when he (or his law clerk) was asked to describe pornography:

I know it when I see it

It might even be the same stuff we learned in grade school. Focusing not only on the individual what, why, how, when, where, strategy starts with a fundamental understanding of each of these, how they interrelate and how they impact the company, the industry and the individual.

Or, as Bill Gates, Andy Grove and Steve Jobs one day learned:

Build platforms and ecosystems—Not just products

Strategy and marketing

No other business unit is impacted more by strategy and strategic planning than marketing. And that impact on marketing is felt across the entire business.

  • If we don’t have a corporate strategy, how are we able to tell our story?
  • If we don’t have a business unit strategy, how are we able to position products and services for sale?
  • If we don’t have a team strategy, how are we able to reflect our company’s brand, mission, values–and our own individual ‘anchors’–to the communities we serve?

(I can make the argument, with its need for capital expenditures, that engineering is a close second. Still, you need to show demand or product-market fit before engineering a product or service.)

While it certainly helps to have an individual at the executive level in charge of marketing strategy (and communications, brand, etc.), there are steps individual contributors and managers can take to tie current-state thinking (and doing) to future state thinking (and doing) and back again.

First, step away from the data as a primary gauge of direction and start learning how to aggregate the data for long-term impacts.

That would leave marketers between a proverbial rock and a hard place, except there’s a relatively simple solution — first-party data — that allows individuals who want to trade data for relevance to do so while allowing those who don’t to opt out.

That’s really backwards! Trade your first-party data so others can have access to it and respect the customer by allowing them to opt-out of their data that they had no say in whether you can trade on their data?


While that quote was from one technology provider, another is pushing us in the direction we need to focus on.

Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection…

…takes away marketers’ ability to track open rates, meaning the future of open rates, and how we measure success in email, is changing in real-time.


Even at its best, open rate as a metric was not a key indicator of success — it was merely a proxy we used along the way. Website visits, purchases, revenue generated; those are the sorts of goals we’re after when crafting an email campaign. And in a post-MPP world, it’s more important than ever to keep their entire customer experience in mind, not just open rates.

I really wanted to cut this quote down a bit more, however the entire piece is true and misses the entire point:

…not just open rates.

That’s the missing point. It’s not just open rates. That’s very tactical thinking.

Rather, it’s not any one thing. It is that entire customer experience. Today. Tomorrow. In the future.

As we turn away from (or focus less on) data, we need to start focusing more on the fundamentals. Business fundamentals. Experience fundamentals. Long-term value fundamentals.

Back to a few definitions noted above…

…in order to make sense of all the detail in the object level, the focus must shift to the meta level: general principles of business strategy, like knowledge of how markets work, where power tends to accrete in value chains, and the forces that drive consumer and organizational behavior.


Build platforms and ecosystems—Not just products

Redefine who your clients really are. Then ruthlessly go after them. Ask them all kinds of questions about their own business, their own practices, their own challenges, their own successes.

And document all this.

You’ll start seeing links between what your organization represents (strategy) and how you can get your team, your business unit, your company to align with that strategy.

Next, turn your attention to a handful of influential speakers, writers, etc. Learn what they are doing today and how they are planning for tomorrow. It’s great if these ‘influencers’ are in your industry.

However, you might learn more about how your team, your business unit, your company needs to change when you learn from other industries.

These changes won’t happen today or tomorrow, especially if you are tying them from different industries.

And that’s the funny thing about strategy–it’s an ongoing effort, can take forever to get here and when it finally does, it likely passes you as a tactic.

And that’s the hallmark of a successful strategy: By time time it comes to be, it’s already been operationalized within your organization (and is likely a big shoulder shrug).

Creating that linkage from marketing strategy to planning will provide an increased focus on highest priority activities to deliver the most value from marketing.

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