What is Strategy?

What is strategy? This is a question which comes up surprisingly often. Sometimes it is in isolation. Other times it is in comparison to something else. (See, for example, my recent post "Brand Strategy is NOT the same thing as Business Strategy").

If we are to engage in strategy with any measure of success, it is important that we are able to answer this question.

What is strategy?

A strategy is a plan to achieve a goal within a given context (tweet this).

Strategy (as an activity) is the development and execution of such plans.

Strategy is often boiled down to three simple questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to get to? (This is the goal.)
  • What is the best way to get there?

What is business strategy?

In business strategy:

  • the goal is usually defined in terms of growth, profit, sustainable value creation or something similar. It can also be expressed as a corporate mission or vision statement, or as a value proposition.
  • the context is:
    • the ever-changing environment in which the business operates. This includes the competitive, regulatory, technological, customer, etc. environment,
    • the businesses internal capabilities, resources, strengths and weaknesses. 
  • the plan is how you allocate resources.
In business, resources and executive attention are usually limited. So business strategies are often as much about defining what a business will do to achieve its goals as it is about defining what the business will NOT do in order to achieve sufficient focus.

What is competitive strategy?

Competitive strategy adds to this by recognising that there may be other players/businesses on the field. These may have similar or competing goals. They need to be out-manoeuvred in order to achieve the business's goal.

What is marketing strategy?

Marketing strategy is a slight variant of business strategy. It starts from the position that the goal is to satisfy customers' needs.

That is technically a narrower definition than business strategy. But in practical terms, it is difficult to separate the satisfaction of customer needs from the sustainable achievement of just about any other business objective. For this reason, the lines between business, competitive and marketing strategy are easily blurred.

However, the broader definition of business strategy recognises that there are courses of action that can be pursued to make a business more successful which have little or no impact on what the customer experiences (at least in the short term).

For the reasons described above, business strategy invariably incorporates both competitive and marketing strategy.

Other types of strategy

There are, of course, lots of other types of strategy. Military strategy, for example, is a form of competitive strategy unrelated to either business or marketing strategy. So too are the strategies one might employ to win a game of chess or cricket. One might also have a weight loss or fitness strategy with no element of competitive, business or marketing strategy.

In all but the simplest contexts, successful strategies must recognize that the context is changing rather than static. Strategy must, therefore, be able to respond to, if not anticipate or even shape, such changes in the context.

Strategies, which are 'clever' are often considered more strategic than those that rely on brute force (size, amount of spend and effort, etc.). Complexity should not be mistaken for cleverness, and great strategies are often deceptively simple.

For example, consider the film 'A beautiful mind'. In it, John Nash famously advised his friends to always ask the second prettiest girl in a group out for a date. He argued that she was more likely to appreciate the attention and accept. A very simple strategy, indeed. Although I have always wondered if he shared this strategy with his friends so that they'd all pursue the second prettiest girls leaving him free to pursue the prettiest girls himself. That would be a neat feat of competitive strategy!

Strategies can be good, that is, likely to achieve the goal even as the environment changes around it, or poor, that is, unlikely to achieve the goal and/or too static in the face of the changing environment.

Good strategy is usually based on a thorough analysis of the context and capabilities. See, for example, my post on how to Analyse the Business and its environment.

Strategies can be subdivided into sub-strategies. For example:

  • short, medium and long-term strategies,
  • brand, IT, HR, financial, etc. strategies.
Ideally, such sub-strategies should all remain aligned as part of an overarching strategy. However, my experience is that such alignment is not always achieved.

What are tactics?

Tactics are related and yet different to strategies. Tactics are unplanned adjustments to a strategy in response to unplanned for developments, and which are required in order to get a strategy back on track (without fundamentally changing the underlying strategy).

Strategy provides a context for the long-term, big-picture thinking required in order to make trade-offs and sacrifices. Think, for example, of a chess player sacrificing a pawn in order to achieve some greater advantage.

Strategy itself is a relatively simple concept. The methods of achieving strategy may be complex and varied. But at the end of the day, the objective is very simple: a plan to achieve a goal within a given context.

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