Is your Strategy really just a plan?

As a word, a concept and an ideology, “strategy” suffers from overuse and little real understanding. I’m sure your business has a defined sales strategy, probably also a marketing strategy (possibly linked to the sales strategy), and may even have an operational and IT strategy as well. However, when most businesses embark on defining a strategy, what they really end up doing is outlining a set of tactics to create a plan.

Plans are important to getting things done within businesses and are a key component of strategy, but plans are operational in focus and are usually set in isolation to the rest of the business. They do not give the power to your business that an overarching strategy can.

If I decide I want to grow sales by 10% in a 6 month period, and to do that I’m going to run 4 promotions, produce new marketing materials, hire more “feet on the street”, and offer account sales staff incentives, then I haven’t created a sales strategy, I’ve outlined a set of tactics to make a plan. If I want to create a real strategy I need to be prepared to look a little deeper.

But if you’ve got a good set of plans, why would you need a strategy? Sounds like a lot of work to come up with something that’s going to result in you doing the same actions you were already going to doesn’t it?

I recently read a book called Heroic Living by Chris Lowney. It’s from the self-help genre of literature, and it had this refreshing view laid out in its first few pages:

“Most how-to books guarantee a result if only you read the book; this book guarantees no result if all you do is read it.”

So Chris lets you know up front that there’s work to be done beyond reading if you want to gain from what he has to say. That if you came looking for the easy path, the quick fix, and the shortcut to success, you’re in the wrong place. In a similar way, if you want to gain the benefits of employing a strategy rather than setting a plan then there’s work to be done.

A plan is a set of steps to an outcome. Follow the steps and the outcome will be achieved. This makes plans rigid and inflexible by nature, “its not working, go to Plan B…”. In a modern business world where markets change quickly and often, its important to be able to make changes without breaking your business flow. As its also important not to get stuck on the tram lines of executing a plan that’s headed in the wrong direction, without the ability to change.

A good strategy allows you to make plans within it, and also constantly break and change plans within it, without corrupting the integrity of your overall strategy and therefore the direction and momentum of your business. One of my favourite military sayings is, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”.  No doubt this saying is born of extensive battle experience where detailed tactics were set and a solid plan was understood, only to be found useless in the first engagement. This highlights not only the fragility of basing your business only on your plans but also the need to have something else to fall back on, to re-group from and to re-plan with.

A good strategy will require a level of self awareness as a business, incorporate feedback, measurement and room for adjustment. It will link to all parts of the business and help deliver a cohesive direction, regardless of what plans are then made in sales, marketing, operations, IT or any other part of the business. What it will deliver for your business is long term success rather than quick wins, even though it requires more work upfront. And if you aren’t in business for long term success then you don’t need a strategy to begin with.

So have a closer look at what guides you in your business. Is it a true business strategy, or just a set of plans?

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