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  • Writer's pictureTara Rethore

What is Strategy?

Engaging in strategic planning work with executives and boards, I’m frequently asked to distinguish between mission and vision. Or, they’ll query where values fit into a strategic plan. There seems to be consensus (or at least acceptance) that these things can be tricky to define in meaningful ways.


I get far fewer requests to define strategy, strategic planning, or strategic plan. Unlike mission, vision, and values, the consensus seems to be that everyone knows what strategy is.


Perhaps they do.


Type “strategy definition” into any search engine and you’ll get millions of results. Hundreds of millions, in fact. Ask “what is strategy” and receive nearly 5 billion answers. Oddly, even with so many results, the search does not yield a singular, accepted definition of strategy. Instead, suggested results expose vast variation among definitions of strategy. There are some common themes, of course. Yet, it’s open to individual interpretation as to which definition most resonates. Quite possibly, then, every member of the c-suite defines strategy differently.


In my experience, a lack of shared understanding about what is strategy impedes both strategy development and its execution. Most senior leaders recognize the need to articulate mission and set vision before embarking on a strategic journey. These represent the organization’s purpose (mission) and destination (vision), respectively.


The executives I advise also know that it can be even more important to establish a common definition of strategy. They define "strategy" before strategic planning. This reminds long-standing team members and inculcates newer staff as to how the building blocks come together – as I do in this video. Increasingly, collective beliefs (values) play a foundational role in how the organization operates and employees behave.


So what is strategy?

Strategy is the set of decisions and actions that get you where you want to go.

Defined in this way, it’s easy to see that strategy is fluid, active. It is the result of myriad, varied insights and thinking. Grounded in facts and data, strategy benefits from intuition and experience. Born in uncertainty – because most of us lack a crystal ball! – good strategy also thrives amid change. It’s adaptive. The set of decisions and actions necessarily evolves as leaders and organizations learn from and respond to shifts in both external context and internal capabilities.

Good strategy thrives amid change.

Indeed: execution matters, too. If the team doesn’t understand or believe in the strategy – or simply doesn’t want to do it – the likelihood of success is quite low. Yet neither is successful execution of strategy equivalent to following a blueprint.


Strategy is a framework to focus attention and resources - the decisions. And, it guides staff as they adapt to changing conditions - the actions needed to achieve the vision.


Bottom line: The best strategy is the one that gets you to your destination.

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