I’d be the first to admit that I sound like a broken record. For those too young to know, and those too old to remember, when a vinyl record was “broken” it played the same few words or chords over and over again.
I’m stuck on the fact that “strategy” and “strategic” are greatly overused words.
Why, you ask, given everything else that’s going in the world, should anyone care about that?
Because when something is overused it becomes devalued. Remember the old saying “Familiarity breeds contempt”? It’s the same idea.
Why are the words strategy and strategic important?
Beginning with its use in the military, a strategy has been central to how one army overcame the challenge or threat posed by another.
A good strategy provided a guiding framework for all parts of an army – the infantry, the artillery and the cavalry – so that they worked together in a synchronized or coherent way to win a battle by defeating the enemy/competition.
The strategy, communicated to the lowest soldiers as plans and orders, told everyone how they were to contribute to the army winning the battle.
Some of those contributions were made long before the battle started. For example the heads of the infantry, artillery and cavalry had to provide the quantity and quality of resources – men, guns and horses – properly trained in their respective skills.
A good strategy, well executed resulted in victory. What could be more important than victory – survival may have depended on it?
Why shouldn’t they be devalued?
What if the heads of the infantry, artillery and cavalry had used the term strategy to describe the role of their functional areas in the battle?
Knowing how each of them was to deploy and manoeuvre once the battle began was critical to ensuring a successful outcome. But that knowledge supported the execution of the army’s strategy, it didn’t replace it.
And what would have happened if the quartermaster had decided he needed a strategy for musket balls or horse shoes? Or what if the cooks had talked about a meat or biscuit strategy? (I’m being silly, but I want to make a point.)
Clearly ammunition, spare parts and food are very important. But just because something’s important it doesn’t automatically follow that it needs a strategy.
What the quartermaster and cooks needed were plans – how many, when, where were they coming from. The heads of the infantry, artillery and cavalry also needed plans – and tactics.
When we use strategy to describe something that actually requires a plan or tactics we cause confusion while devaluing the real importance of the word.
What has any of this to do with business?
At first strategy was used in the context of the company as a whole.
But because a strategy is perceived to be important, the word began to be used to lend importance to things that someone – executive, consultant or salesperson- decided weren’t being taken sufficiently seriously for their purposes.
Strategy or strategic also began to be used to describe things that were considered to be important to, or even necessary for, the company’s success. But many of those things are the modern equivalent of musket balls or horse shoes.
Why do I care?
I care for 2 reasons. I believe that success comes from doing a million small things right and that we should say what we mean.
When we misuse words we do not say what we mean. And, while that may seem like a small thing, if we don’t do the small things right, what chance do the big things have?
It also appears that I’m not alone. In his book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” Richard Rumelt talks about mistaking goals for strategy and substituting fluff for strategic arguments as 2 of the 4 reasons for bad strategy.
And, this week, the Harvard Business Review School listed “Five Common Strategy Mistakes”, 3 of which involve confusion.
For the past 12 years, Jim Stewart has worked with entrepreneurs and business owners who want to increase profits and improve the value of their company – and a number of the companies with whom he has worked have received Business Achievement Awards. As founder of ProfitPath (http://www.profitpath.com), he is a TEC Canada Trusted Advisor.