If You Want Great Strategy, Think Consequences
In business we talk a lot about ‘strategy’ but what exactly does it mean? Well, there are probably about as many definitions of strategy as there are management consultants writing a book. Still, here are a few common descriptions:
“Strategy is a method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.” (The Business Dictionary)
“Strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim” (OED).
“Strategy is plan for achieving a major result” (Deri Llewellyn-Davies)
But there’s a problem. Along the way, in my own work, I haven’t found many of these definitions to be very helpful to clients. Perhaps that is because most definitions refer to strategy in terms of it being a plan. You have to wonder, why do we need this special word?
Of the definitions I have referenced, I do like Deri’s because “major result" emphasises significance, even though it still essentially means, “it’s a plan for something big”.
There are tactics too. These always come up when talking about strategy. And a common question is around the differentiation between the two.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, tactics are: “The art or skill of employing available means to accomplish an end”. This sounds very similar to the definition of strategy although the emphasis has shifted to “means” and an “end”. The scale and scope of tactics seem to be smaller, more discrete.
But are we really just calling strategy ‘big plans’ and tactics ‘little plans”? And who defines big anyway? Could my strategy be your tactic?
I am therefore indebted to Colin S. Gray, who, in his book The Future of Strategy, outlines a very clear distinction: “The core challenge of strategy is the attempt to control action so that it has the political effect desired. Indeed strategy is all about the consequences of action that is tactical behaviour”.
Gray is writing about military/political strategy but I think his definition applies just as much to the world of business, and I would paraphrase it as: “Strategy is about consequences, tactics are about action.”
For me, this definition very neatly captures what we mean by ‘major result’ and ‘an end’. In that ‘major result’ is very likely to have significant consequences for us, while any specific end, in and of itself, probably doesn’t.
It’s interesting that one of the first definitions of strategy in a business context, from George Steiner’s 1979 book ‘Strategic Planning’, “Strategy is that which top management does that is of great importance to the organization.” is very congruent with this definition.
From this definition flows the idea that our strategy will employ tactics as vehicles for action, and by evaluating the results of using those tactics we can determine their consequences - whether they advance us towards, or away from, the major result we are looking for.
For it is consequences that matter!
The danger is that often our strategic work is absent a proper appreciation of consequences, because we do not really measure what is happening. If the consequences only become apparent when they reach such a fever-pitch that they simply cannot be hidden or ignored - how does this help us?
So the question we should be asking ourselves, when working on strategy is, “are we anticipating consequences and planning for what whey can tell us?”