Ask ten business people what strategy is, and most will give the same answer: Strategy is a long-term plan. My undergraduate students give a similar reply on the first day of my strategic management class. Besides, many folks use the word to inflate the importance of their activities. One business executive bragged, “I am excited because after one year we finished working on our five-year strategic plan.” Though difficult, we did it. His strategic plan was an end-a goal. He presented it to his board of directors and then moved to another major project. That’s not understanding strategy and strategic management.
Strategy is About Choices
I learned strategy as a teenager in college when I learned to play chess. Soon I discovered chess is a strategy game. Each person starts with a goal to capture the other person’s king. Each must understand the value and role of individual chess pieces, particularly how each moves. The pawn advances one space, the knight in an inverted L-shape, the bishop diagonally to as many consecutively open spaces as available, while the queen goes in every direction to any sequentially available space.
You cannot play chess haphazardly; stay focused on your goal. Before each move, ponder how the other player might respond, and consider a likely counter. When the opponent moves unexpectedly, revisit your overall approach.
What’s the strategy in chess? It’s your choices to achieve your goal to beat your competition. That’s strategy in a nutshell – choices to get to your goals. And strategy is not static, but dynamic. Once you decide your overall approach (strategy) to capture your opponent’s king, if she plays an unanticipated move, review your strategy and adjust as needed. Never choose a game-plan to checkmate the king and follow it blindly, change as needed. Learn the opponent’s patterns (past) and use it (present) to develop your overall approach (future). Likewise, never do a “strategic plan” and file it. Update it to show current available choices to meet the mission of the business.
Strategy and Negative Choices
I learned three valuable lessons about strategy during my 32-years business career. First, strategy allows you to commit resources optimally. Second, whenever you commit resources to one area, you deny other areas those resources. This is crucial to keep in mind. Although obvious, sometimes we do not spend enough time looking at this negative choice.
The third noteworthy lesson is some choices will not turn out as expected and will be impossible to reverse in the short to medium term. When this happens, if you made a mistake, admit it, look at available choices early, and understand this is part of the strategic journey. You will not get every decision right. Strategy is not static, but dynamic.