Few people in the world of business would dare to make the claim that they aren’t strategic. It’s viewed as a necessary capability. It is also one of the most excessively used words on resumes. Right after ‘innovative’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘team player’— comes ‘strategic’.
Or worse, people describe themselves as innovative strategists engaging in strategic collaboration as strategic team players. When everything is strategic, nothing is.
One of the problems with the whole concept of being strategic, of course, is that we’re not entirely sure what it means. As a concept, it gets applied in many ways and is viewed as meaning different things in different contexts. The practical implication is that in conventional use it runs the risk of becoming almost devoid of meaning.
The dictionary definition of ‘strategy’ isn’t terribly helpful, either, in searching for clarity. According to Merriam-Webster, strategy represents “a careful plan or method of achieving a particular goal, usually over a long period of time.” This has some conflicting ideas to it. A careful plan would typically be one that is detailed, fine grained and though through with diligent. That’s countered by the concept of a long period of time, which implies planning that by necessity is higher level, broader and less detailed.
In flailing about in the quest for an appropriate level of detail, many grab onto the helpful hierarchy of operational, tactical and strategic. If we’re being operational, we’re deeply immersed in the doing. Operational is hands-on and direct. Tactical is seen as a logical ordering of operations in a way to make them more effective and aligned. So strategic is assumed to be higher level than that. Which is, if we’re honest, where many people get stuck. So they go back to the tactics and operational details they are more comfortable with, hoping to do those in a slightly more strategic way.
Henry Mintzberg, a well-respected strategy research, offered five perspectives posited to proactively ponder the problem. Strategy can be a plan, which above all is conscious and purposeful. Strategic also can represent a ploy, a positioning intended to realize some advantage in a specific context. Strategy can be a pattern, reflecting the repeated habits and consistent behaviours observed over time; as a pattern, then, strategy may be neither conscious nor purposeful, but simply what emerges. Strategy can be seen as a position, simply staking a claim to a niche, market or category, often relative to someone else. And strategy can be a perspective, reflecting the way that the world is perceived, and the assumptions and beliefs that order that worldview. What Mintzberg’s five ‘P’s of strategy most directly do is to stake out what strategy can be, and the range of possible definitions by which the word ‘strategy’ is commonly used.
What remains, however, is the need to clarify just what being ‘strategic’ actually means. Synthesizing the essence of everything outlined above, strategy is how we think about, prepare and plan for the future. It is neither fully deliberate and conscious nor entirely emergent and accidental. A strategic perspective is one that contemplates the desired future state of an organization, considers its current capacities and boundaries, and takes into account the potential uncertainties that can still manifest themselves. Strategic thinking takes into balances desires, realities, possibilities and risks in order to maximize future success. Strategy in this context is an adaptive plan that provides direction and focus, defining specific actions while also allowing for flexible adjustment and change.
To some, that might not be a satisfactory answer. It might even be viewed as being evasive or vague. It’s not intended to be, nor is it. While an operational mindset wants certainty, specifics and concrete answers, the future is inherently uncertain. Any plan is subject to change, and any assumptions made about the future are exactly that: assumptions. We cannot extrapolate the future from the past. A strategic mindset recognize that the value of strategy is not the plan, but the process of developing the plan. Making choices, and being willing to adapt those choices when opportunities arise or challenges emerge is what maximizes the likelihood of success. Mindless adherence to a fixed plan, or stubborn refusal to even consider planning, will ultimately lead to extinction.
In a world where almost everything and everyone is described as strategic, it is arguably helpful to be clear about what the term genuinely means. Being strategic is necessary but challenging. Strategic thinking requires deliberation, insight, foresight, flexibility, perspective and a tolerance for ambiguity. It is the necessary mindset required to appropriately prepare for a future that cannot be predicted or controlled. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s certainly not for everybody.
Or, to paraphrase Monty Python: “We are all strategic.” “I’m not!”