What is Strategy, Anyway?

Repost from my 2017 Medium blog post

Quick! In one sentence, how do you define ‘strategy’?

A Google search will return results talking about planning and achieving goals, with a slew of frameworks that use a combination of shapes and arrows. But what does strategy actually mean? Heck, I worked in strategy consulting for years, and even I still struggled to define what strategy really means.

At the highest level, a strategy is a game plan, a choice between lots of different options. It is a plan of how we are going to approach achieving our goals. It supports working toward a future state, to help us figure out what to do, why we should be doing it, and how. It is the planning before the executing.

In my experience, I've seen organizations time and again build strategies focused almost entirely on the question of ‘what’ to do, leaving the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ to be figured out later.

Imagine this scenario:

A tech company identifies a hot technology with which they want to create a new product.

Let's say, virtual reality (VR).

The Chief Strategy Officer is tasked with figuring out the company’s strategy in this area.

After lengthy analysis, which might include consulting a multitude of frameworks, and activities such as sizing the opportunity area and growth projections, the Strategy team concludes that to stay current in th emarket, the company should build a VR headset.

Once this is decided, the directive permeates down through the levels of the organization that are tasked with making this product a reality.

I've seen this happen many times in my consulting work. What's wrong with this picture?

It is more than likely that the Strategy team had no insight or visibility into the people who might buy and use this new offering. Will the organization’s current customers even care to entertain the idea of buying this product? What value, or meaning, does this product create for the end-user? It is highly likely that in this scenario, the Strategy team could not answer these questions. And, unless you are Apple (with a customer base that in many cases will buy your new devices because of the brand you’ve created), this is a problem for the organization. While this problem may not manifest itself in the planning stages, it certainly will when the product hits the shelves.

In my work with large technology clients, and with founding teams as part of IDEA: Northeastern University’s Venture Accelerator, I support organizations in being human-centric at the intersection of technology, business, and consumer needs. Alignment among these areas is impossible when the development of new products and services focuses on ‘what’ the organization wants to build, without timely consideration of ‘why’ it is valuable to customers, and ‘how’ the execution or the technology will work.

These three pillars align directly to the core aspects of strategy:

  • What do we do, and is it viable? (Business Strategy)
  • Why should we do it, and is it desirable? (Design Strategy)
  • How do we go about doing it, and is it feasible? (Technology Strategy).

The term Design Strategy is likely the least familiar here. Design, at its core, is a problem-solving approach that puts people and their needs and preferences front and center. A venture’s Design Strategy should answer the question of ‘why’ what we are creating is meaningful for customers. This is where methods such as human-centered design and design thinking come in, to help root innovation in creating meaning for people. At the end of the day, someone needs to buy and use the product or service. If desirability is not addressed, a company can have the most cutting-edge technology on the market but it still won’t catch on.

In order to achieve experience innovation, all three of these strategy pillars must be present: if any of these elements are missing, it will not be a successful strategy.

What is experience innovation, you ask? Experiences dominate all of our interactions with people, with products, with services, with food, you name it. Fundamentally, if you are innovating, you are changing someone’s experience with something.

And at the end of the day, our work must boil down to what the experience is that we are creating, and why it is meaningful.