long, dimly lit hallway
PHOTO: Veenit Panchal

Underneath your office, there is a long, dimly lit hallway that no one uses. If you follow it to the end, you'll find a steel box with a padlock so embellished and grand that there must be something important inside. No one you work with knows about this hallway or the box.

If you dig for the truth, your inquiry would lead to the CEO, who would say: “Inside that box, there is a document with the headline 'Strategy.' I’d like to tell you what it says, but everyone has forgotten. By chance, have you seen the key?”

That is where we are with strategy in the U.S. It is supposedly vital yet unused; transparent yet excessively guarded; cited yet unknown; communicated but forgotten.

I previously argued that strategy is knowing today why and how you're going to win tomorrow. We can agree that such knowledge is valuable, even if you define strategy differently.

Here in round two of this series, I ask and answer a deceivingly hard question: How does strategy have an impact? To run with the metaphor, how can a strategy be more than a piece of paper in a lockbox?

My answer is to reframe strategy in three dimensions: specificity, awareness and inclusion. If we take these concepts seriously, how we design and implement strategy changes drastically. You won’t be able to contain strategy in a box, even if you wanted to.

Related Article: A Definition for Strategy You Can Actually Use

The 3 Dimensions of Strategy

Specificity

Businesspeople overuse the term “strategic” the way teenagers overuse “lit” (I am told that is now the cool way of saying “awesome”). Dropping “strategic” into a conversation is the way people say, “We really thought this through. What I’m telling you is part of the plan.”

Of course, if you had the gall to ask what that strategy is, the conversation might get awkward. “Strategy” and its derivatives have become unspecific. Few people can tell you what game they’re trying to win at, besides something like “maximizing revenue” or “driving growth.” Those goals are baked into the definition of what a business is — they are not strategies.

That is why, first and foremost, a strategy must be specific to have any impact. It must define what “winning” is. In the book "Playing to Win," former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and advisor Roger Martin provide five questions that focus a strategy:

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. Where will we play?
  3. How will we win where we have chosen to play?
  4. What capabilities must be in place to win?
  5. What management systems and processes are required to ensure the capabilities are in place?

These five questions point to a simple, Mad Libs formula:

Our organization exists to [#1 AN AMBITIOUS PURPOSE] for [#2 OUR COMMUNITY, A PLACE DEFINED BY PEOPLE]. We win by [#3 DOING SOMETHING VALUABLE]. Having [#4 THESE DIFFERENTIATED CAPABILITIES] and [#5 THESE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS] ensure that we can win.

Related Article: Signs Your Digital Strategy Is Broken (and How to Fix It)

Awareness

OK, you have a flash of insight and fill in those blanks. Done? No! You missed an important step. The point of strategy isn’t to have an answer. How you come to the strategy is equally important.

We want an aware strategy: one that reflects the distinct experiences and knowledge of the organization’s leaders. Through formulating strategy, these leaders also become aware of each other’s perspectives and experiences. To use the jargon of the day, awareness breaks down knowledge "siloes."

Most “Strategic Planning” happens in boardrooms or at a corporate retreat with the bigwigs. I'd suggest a different approach: Schedule a workshop with the sole agenda of creating a companywide strategy. If that’s not realistic, plan a workshop for your marketing department. Invite everyone who you consider to be a leader or influencer in your organization (or department). This should include frontline workers who’ve been at the job for 20 years. It could also include the 20-something who just rewrote the user interface of your mobile app.

Why a workshop? Because people don’t have enough time in their work calendar to think. "Performance management systems" aren’t made to measure thoughts and ideas. That’s all the influencers will produce at the workshop: ideas that fill in the Mad Libs. Then, they will come up with sub-ideas that fit sub-strategies for each wing of the organization.

Here’s not the place to list dozens of brainstorm questions (if you want them, contact me!). However, good questions will force everyone to consider things like:

  • Why do the activities of this organization matter?
  • Why do I wake up and do this every day?
  • If our organization ceased to exist, who would notice?
  • How do my colleagues in other departments affect my role and department?

The point is to make your influencers feel part of something bigger as they develop your company’s strategy. But again, why spend all the work hours and resources to do this?

First, no one cares about a strategy over which they feel zero ownership. Second, c-level executives are ill-equipped to formulate the strategy alone because (usually) they are more isolated from the customers than any other members of the organization. And third, your influencers are central to the next step.

Related Article: The Missing Link for Digital Transformation Success? People

Inclusion

To be included is to identify yourself with something greater than your own consciousness. That something can be a family, partnership, religion, town, sports team, nation, or yes, a business. Strategy will be paper in a lockbox unless your people are led to feel included in it. Leaders, and influencers especially, play an important role in inclusion by inviting their peers into a community. In a thriving business, that community shares a collection of ideas that, today, illuminate why and how you're going to win tomorrow.

The creation of strategy fosters community by organizing its members to take deliberate action. And the reverse is true: the community reinforces the strategy. You don’t even have to tell influencers how to sell the strategy. If they like it, they engage their peers in it. That is what influencers have always done.

So much of human progress emerges from who influencers connect with and the ideas that seal the connection. Every great strategy, from that of Ulysses Grant to Secretary of State George Marshall, comes with a leader, a community (possibly an army), and influencers that backed it.

Again, you might not have the power to create a strategy for your entire organization and include thousands of employees in it. Work with the resources you have and instill strategy where you can. You might have to guess what your organization’s overarching strategy is and, based on that hypothesis, map your martech strategy to it. That’s OK! It’s better to be on a course than none at all.

Related Article: Want Engaged Employees? Show Them the Big Picture

A Strategy Spoken

In the first article of this series, I said that everyone on a martech team should be able to answer five questions (listed above), one of which is: What is our winning aspiration?

Here, I explained the human factor behind designing and transmitting that aspiration. I don’t care how many posters, emails and documents mention the strategy. It doesn’t build a community unless the combination of specificity, awareness and inclusion gives people the power to speak about strategy and live it.

A strategy defined in clear words, informed by real-life experience, and shared by influencers is transformative. Under those conditions, a morale-boosting workshop does not fizzle into a mere memory. Strategy doesn’t languish in lockbox, forgotten, at the far end of a dimly lit hallway. If we want strategy to become more than a buzzword, we must focus less on what the strategy should be and more on how to create a good one.