The Non-Strategy: How Some ‘Strategies’ Are Not Strategies At All

Lack of a proper strategy is a serious problem that can result in ad hoc improvements that don't contribute to overall organizational needs, says John S. Hamalian. The trouble is many organisations think they've got a strategy when they don't. Do you recognize any of these 4 common "non-strategies"?

‘Even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go wrong’, goes the saying. That may be true, but having some kind of plan is typically better than having none at all. Yet the ability to properly develop, execute and sustain a solid strategic plan remains surprisingly beyond the reach of many organisations, including the private, public and non-profit sectors.

Without a well-structured plan an organisation runs the risk of meandering through the year, either with their heads stuck too high in the long-term clouds or mired in short-term firefighting on the ground. In either case they will likely not meet their intended outcomes, which need to be the result of a balanced combination of strategic, tactical and operational plans. Lack of a proper strategy will also make it very difficult to carry out process excellence initiatives, potentially resulting in ad hoc improvements that are not contributing to the overall organizational needs.

The big issue here is that many of these organisations do not think they lack a plan. They often believe they have a solid strategy in place and are driving their actions with it. But in many cases there is a disconnect between reality and what many would consider to be evidence of sound planning techniques. These ‘non-strategies‘ usually fall into the following categories:

Non Strategy #1: ‘The Wall Placard Strategy’

Some organisations will go to great lengths to create wonderful Vision and Mission statements and proudly post them all over their walls. But then their planning stops there. While starting with a Vision and/or Mission statement is fine, those long-term high-level goals need to then be translated into more tangible objectives and action plans. Otherwise they will not have sufficient substance to be able to drive or align their yearly, monthly and daily activities.

Non Strategy #2: ‘The Stratospheric Strategy’

These strategies are too high-level. They start in the clouds and never come down, making them extremely difficult to make actionable. While going a bit beyond the Vision/Mission statement level, they still remain too generalized in nature. This type of strategy is marked by an intense focus on obscure long-term goals or vague bullet-point objectives, but not much else. The result will usually be some real slick-looking verbage for their website and annual reports, but little direction to identify the specific actions needed to meet their vision.

Non Strategy #3: ‘The KPI Strategy’

When asked to show their strategies, some organisations excitedly whip out a beautiful powerpoint slide that states their goals in terms of a metric. Examples are ‘double revenue in three years’ or ‘achieve 20% margin by 2013’. This is not a strategy. This is merely a high-level metric that numerically states a business goal. While barely articulating the ‘what’, this practice completely misses the ‘how’ that is so critical to successful attainment of the goals. Developing clear objectives and action plans would be the way to make the desired goals and metrics achievable. Having a metric is a fine complement to a goal and allows it to be measurable, but it does not constitute a strategy.

Non Strategy #4: ‘The Govern-less Strategy’

Some strategies are actually quite well constructed, but they miss one crucial element: a governance process. Many wonderful powerpoint presentations on an organisation’s strategy end up remaining just that – a powerpoint slide. A strategy is completely worthless unless it has a mechanism for sustainment during the whole year, with a clear process on who will lead the reviews, what specifically will be covered and what the frequency will be. A governance process allows the strategy to be more than just a one-time exercise, it literally is the life force that keeps the strategy alive and well during the whole year.

Building a strategy may seem like a fairly easy endeavor, but as we can see above there are many scenarios where the effectiveness of the planning can be significantly compromised if not constructed and executed well. A solid plan does much more than just lay out objectives; it aligns the entire team, engages them in the organizational endeavors, provides them with a sense of purpose and gives clarity to expected outcomes. One of the most common weaknesses of lean six sigma programmes is to only track the number of projects, training and belts, without having a sense of strong purpose of what those projects are supposed to be contributing to. A clear strategy with objectives and action plans can provide the fuel to ensure that improvement projects are aligned to the vision, adding value to key priority areas and are contributing to the bottom line.

While both mouse and man may sometimes fail in their execution, having a solid plan is an effective way to define needs, outline expectations, align the organisation and help to cultivate a culture of long-term thinking.

John will be discussing what elements make a great strategy in an upcoming article , to be published in the weeks ahead.