What Is a Strategy? Fundamentals of Successful Strategic Planning

Have you ever noticed how the question of “What is a strategy?” rarely comes up in the context of strategic planning? The word strategy is frequently used with the assumption that anyone involved in developing strategies knows exactly what a strategy is. It has been my experience that such an assumption is often wrong. Far too often, those charged with the task of strategic planning for their organization do not know or understand the definition of strategy. The result is that what they end up calling a strategy is not really a strategy. With this consequence in mind, I’ll start by discussing what a strategy is not.

Before I begin, please keep in mind that the goal of this discussion is not to get caught up in semantics. The goal is for you and your planning team to have a unified basis for evaluating ideas so that you can begin the process of deliberately converting ideas into actionable strategies.

Strategy versus Tactic

As a strategic planning expert for more than fifteen years, it has been the case most often that I am given a series of tactics when I ask a potential client what is their current strategy for achieving their objective. Most people think they have a strategy when all they really have are tactics. This confusion is common and can undermine the entire strategic planning process. It will serve your strategic planning efforts well to understand and be able to distinguish strategies versus tactics.

Tactics are specific actions that promote achievement of a strategy. The hierarchical order goes like this:

A tactic supports achievement of a strategy.
A strategy supports achievement of an objective.
An objective supports achievement of a mission.
A mission supports achievement of a vision.
Achievement of a vision fulfills purpose.

Only having tactics without actionable and integrated strategies is a primary reason why so many business owners and executives are frustrated and simply spinning their wheels. In other words, they are busier than ever before and investing significant resources, but not experiencing significant progress on their objectives or anything close to the expected return on their investment.

Please do not think for a moment that tactics play a less valuable role in the success of an objective. The right tactics are just as important as the right strategy. Ineffective tactical support can render an otherwise effective strategy useless in (and sometimes destructive to) achieving an objective.

What is a Strategy?

In its simplest form, a strategy is a clear decision and statement about a chosen course of action for obtaining a specific goal or result. While this definition is succinct and suffices for a general discussion, this definition and those like it have no practical value for organizational strategic planning efforts. Why? It provides no basis for evaluating whether a strategy is actionable. Actionable strategies are the only kind that matter in business.

What is an Actionable Strategy?

From the perspective of successful strategic planning, there are two kinds of strategies: actionable strategies and all other strategies. My definition of an actionable strategy states:

An actionable strategy is a comprehensively scrutinized decision about the most effective and efficient use of specific resources for systematically increasing competitive advantage and profits over a specific period of time.

Side note: If increasing competitive advantage and profits over a specific period of time is not the goal of your current strategic planning efforts, then just substitute your goal in this definition to make it specific to your needs.

Actionable strategies are a fundamental part of the Actionable Strategic Planning® process as they support business growth in multiple ways and enhance your chances of success if the right minds are engaged in consistently monitoring, evaluating and integrating new information and adapting the strategy as necessary.