When you search the web for definitions of “strategy,” they all sound reasonable ... except to all the people who proposed a different definition. No one seems to know exactly what strategy is, but they do know they don't agree with anyone else about it. Apparently, asking for a definition of strategy is like asking philosophers for the meaning of life. Good luck getting a consistent answer.
In the martech world, everyone wants to have a “strategy” and be “strategic.” But if no one can agree on what those terms mean, how can we achieve that? Too often, the strategy is viewed as a piece of paper that has no bearing on day-to-day work.
The existing definitions of strategy have similar problems: they’re hard to use and remember, they introduce too many undefined terms, and they’re too long. I’m no philosophy professor or military scholar, but if I can introduce a definition of strategy that solves those problems and works better for the martech community, why not try?
Here’s my definition: Strategy is knowing today why and how you're going to win tomorrow.
That’s it. Of course, we can explore the meaning and implications of those 12 words. How does a strategy meet that requirement of connecting present knowledge to future actions? Why is this definition ideal for martech, and how can you use it?
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Why We Need Strategies
Everyone seems to agree that strategy involves setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them. If it were that simple though, human beings wouldn’t have spent millennia debating the meaning and purpose of strategy.
Strategies address situations we can’t fully control. They plan out how, in the face of uncertainty, a team will march towards its goal despite everything beckoning them to quit, pivot, sit down and cry, etc.
At the same time, a great strategy isn’t passive. It doesn’t wait for time to act upon it. Rather, it actively shapes events over time to produce a desirable future — what we often call a “win.”
For a company that depends on digital marketing technology, knowing today how you’re going to win tomorrow is possible but extremely challenging for a few reasons.
1. We stink at predicting the future of technology
We are notoriously bad at predicting what new technologies will emerge and disrupt our way of doing things. Everyone is attuned to the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain right now, which, to strategists, is a warning sign. What are we all missing? While everyone’s focus converges on AI and blockchain, what innovations are the magicians doing out of sight?
2. We mistake process for strategy
If those tech magicians are likely to blindside us, then companies that confuse strategy with processes are especially vulnerable to disruption. A real strategy is tech-agnostic, meaning it leaves space to change platforms, integrate solutions, embrace new tools, and let go of outdated ones.
Only if we understand our existing processes and technologies deeply can we trust them in an ambiguous future. Strategically, we can evolve and repurpose our processes and tools for missions their inventors never imagined.
3. We are afraid to share the strategy
The third and most critical challenge of strategy involves people. In fables of strategy, one great leader — a Sun Tzu, Napoleon Bonaparte or Ulysses Grant — pulls all the strings. Rarely do the fables include mention of all the people around the leader who had to understand and execute various elements of the strategy.
For obvious reasons, military leaders couldn’t reveal everything on their minds (spies, treason and more were real threats). For similar reasons, neither can modern C-level executives. But, I would argue that in information businesses, as compared to militaries, individuals have far more decision-making autonomy and therefore need to know and understand more of the strategy.
Every organization today wants to be “agile,” right? Explain to me how members of a team will make good decisions on the fly if they don’t know and share a strategy.
To “know” the strategy is to understand how one’s responsibilities fit into an overarching plan. To “share” the strategy is to work towards a collective purpose. Combined, those conditions produce camaraderie, engagement and a heightened desire to win — not just for oneself, but for those to whom we feel responsible.
A Strategy Quiz
Maybe the hardest question for a leader is this: How much of the strategy do you need to share? At what point is awareness of the strategy an advantage, and at what point does it become a liability?
I believe everyone on a martech team should be able to answer the five questions former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and advisor Roger Martin shared in their book "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works."
- What is our winning aspiration?
- Where will we play?
- How will we win where we have chosen to play?
- What capabilities must be in place to win?
- What management systems are required to ensure the capabilities are in place?
These questions aren’t a definition of strategy. Rather, they’re a framework for expressing and elaborating a strategy.
If everyone is aligned on one strategy — meaning they answer the five questions the same way — then the choices team members make around people, processes and technology should make sense to other teammates. A team with a strategy doesn't waste time justifying each decision. Rather, people act with agility, and teammates understand what they did and why.
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Strategy in Retrospect?
Not every victory is the product of strategy. We can look at a leader’s actions and say, “Wow, what a strategy!” Often though, we don’t know if the person acted intentionally. In retrospect, we might attribute success to plans that didn’t exist — or to plans that person invented after the fact.
A definition and framework for strategy is your insurance against chance, which lives in the unknown tomorrow. If my teammates can answer Lafley and Martin’s questions in the present, I believe they will make winning decisions in difficult, unpredictable moments.
I like my definition of strategy because I can remember it, and it stands above any single framework or set of tactics. Maybe it will serve you too. Or, like everyone else who writes about strategy, maybe you’ll dislike my definition and come up with a new one. Please share it when you do.
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