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3rd – 5th July 2017
The Barbican

I say, I say, I say... when is a strategy not a strategy?

: Rob Alcroft

In a world where change is the only constant, is strategy critical or irrelevant? Rob Alcroft takes a look...

In one of my early experiences of developing a fundraising strategy for an organisation, my boss included in the template a series of definitions: strategy vs tactics vs business plan, etc. I was curious at the time as to why he felt this was important but I realise now, with a wisdom that is scant consolation for a fading youth (and having lost so much precious time to arguments about semantics), exactly why the wise old strategist did this.

Before we decide our strategy, first we need to understand what we mean by ‘strategy’. That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it?

The dictionary definition

Looking to the dictionary for help, the word strategy comes from the Greek strategia (‘generalship’), and is defined as “a plan of action to achieve a long-term or overall aim”

strategy

Is strategy dependent on timescale?

This definition would suggest that strategy is dependent on timescale. Does strategy necessarily need to cover a longer period? Six months? A year? Five years? Could be. However, I have known people to talk about having a strategy for a particular day, or a particular meeting. In fact, now I think about it, I’m sure it is possible to have a strategy for a single moment. Perhaps strategy is not defined by time and the dictionary is misleading us on this occasion.

So is strategy about sophistication?

When does a ‘plan of action’ become ‘strategy’? I have often wondered whether it is something to do with sophistication or complexity. Is a plan actually a strategy when it becomes sophisticated enough? But I have been advised by very clever people that one should keep one’s strategy simple. Therefore strategy is not linked to level of sophistication.

graph

Use of the word ‘strategy’ according to Google Books Ngram Viewer – the sharp increase in use coincides with the proliferation of advertising agencies from the 1950s onwards. These two things might not be connected.

 

Does it have to be more than just tactics?

So what is it? Is it when something goes beyond just quick-win tactics? If that’s the case then a series of tactical responses to unfolding circumstances wouldn’t be a strategy. Yet I see the words “being agile enough to respond to emerging market conditions” appear in strategy documents with monotonous regularity. That’s another way of saying ‘tactical response’, isn’t it?

It’s what I meant to do

It could be something to do with deliberate intent. It could be a way of not getting batted about by the ever-changing world around us; having a conscious intent and staying the course. That being the case, if you were to challenge someone to look at your organisation’s actions and use reverse logic to work out what your strategy was, they’d be able to. Really?

Back to basics

Let’s get right down to basics: is strategy simply the act of thinking about something before you do it? This would make strategy inevitable as it is impossible not to think about something that has been brought to your attention (don’t think about elephants). Therefore strategy is unavoidable and it is just a question of how much control you wish to exert over it; the alternative being to leave your future entirely to fate.

What’s the point?

What’s the point of all this? The message is clear and simple – we need to get control of this indescribable yet unavoidable thing that appears not to be linked to any of its defining qualities.

Or do we?

Now, get to work.

Rob Alcroft

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