What is this strategy thing, anyway?

I have always been intrigued when people mention strategy in a business context.

In the context of algorithms, strategy is used freely and refers to the approach used to solve for a given problem. See for example, how easily “strategy” or “strategies” appears in this description of the Quicksort algorithm. In the world of business, though, strategy evokes an aura. It seems that strategy is the realm of a chosen few. And, when “strategy” is combined with “vision”, you might as well be in rarefied air.

You’d expect senior business leaders to be aligned on what strategy / vision are all about. And while there’s plenty of literature on the subject, practicing leaders themselves sometimes use the terms loosely.

  • Wendy’s CEO: “Three key strategies: strengthen core business, execute new initiatives, and reduce costs.”
  • Macy’s CEO: “We’re trying to find the people that were customers and didn’t come back. That’s a major strategy.”
  • Pfizer CEO: “Our strategy is to survive this period.”

We’ll decipher these “strategies” later on.

What’s your strategy?

So, here’s a question: What is your company’s strategy? Better yet, start with yourself. Consider broad stages in your life. Say your education. Or career. Or marriage. Or kids. What’s your career strategy? Your marriage strategy? Your kid strategy?

My understanding

For me, strategy refers to the plan for how one gets from a current state to a desired end state1. This means:

  1. You need to know where you are (current state)
  2. You need to know where you want to go (the end-state, or the “Vision”)
    • As an aside, it really helps to know why you want to get there (why not somewhere else?)
    • Very soon, things will not go according to plan. At that time, having a clear purpose helps figuring out what to do
  3. You need to understand what hurdles may be in your way
  4. You need to understand what resources are available to help you get to your goal
  5. You need to have a candid assessment of what you’re good at and not (your capabilities, or lack thereof)
  6. You need a way to pick one of a few alternatives that will then get you to your goal (what is more important to you?)

Where do you want to go today?

It is imperative that you know where you want to go (the “Vision”), and ideally why (the “Purpose”), before you decide how to get going (the “Strategy”). There are so many memorable quotes on this one:

  • 7 Habits: “Many people are climbing the ladder of success every day, only to find it leaning against the wrong wall.” Vision is knowing which ladder to climb, strategy is figuring out how to climb it.
  • Alice in Wonderland: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
  • Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

I love my GPS

Consider this analogy. You are home, and want to get to a destination 100 miles away. You have a navigation app. You key in where you want to go. You decide how you want to get there (e.g. walk, car, truck, bus, train, etc.). You select hurdles you’d like to avoid (e.g. traffic, tolls, etc.). You tell it what is important to you amongst alternative routes (e.g. fastest time, shortest distance). The app then presents 2-3 alternative routes. You consider them, and pick one.

Here, you may describe your strategy to get from home to your destination as: I’ll use an available resource (my car), and use a route that clears hurdles (traffic) and optimizes a goal (fastest time) to get there.

Now we can apply these principles to determine the strategy to solve a given problem – at work or in life.

Why having a strategy matters

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter (at least initially) how good or bad your strategy is (i.e. does it actually get you where you want to go? does it use your resources well? does it optimize your goals? does really clear the hurdles?). What matters is that to have a strategy, you need to introspect.

You need to take pause, assess the situation, truly decide where you want to go (and why), understand what resources are truly at your disposal (you are not bound by available resources – you can get different ones), understand hurdles (competition, in a business context), and decide what you want to optimize. Then you need to pick an option out of the few that emerge. This very act forces you to clarify your thinking. It forces you to articulate where you want to go, and say “no” to some other options. It becomes a tool to get your team together and align direction.

Don’t forget execution

Of course, execution is also really important. You could have the most profound vision and the most brilliant strategy, and they will be useless if you don’t actually follow through.

Are you bold enough to break the cord and let go of where you are? Are you able to keep spirits high when missteps happen, as they inevitably will? Do you know if you’re really headed where you wanted to go? If things change on you, will you be able to admit that you need to go somewhere else? Will you be able to keep an eye on your resources and ensure you don’t run out along the way? Can you trust your team? Can they trust you? Will you take care of each other if something goes wrong? Will you reward them if things go right, or steal the spotlight?

So many challenges. It’s no wonder leadership is hard. It’s no wonder execution is hard.


Make no mistake; nothing will ever go to plan. Even then, it really helps to have a plan to get started.

Invest the time in thinking about your strategy.


So what about those quotes?

Let’s wrap up with the quotes from earlier on:

  • Wendy’s CEO: “Three key strategies: strengthen core business, execute new initiatives, and reduce costs.”
    That’s a what, not a how. You could say, “Our goals are to strengthen core business…,” and not have a clue as to how you’re going to achieve it.

  • Macy’s CEO: “We’re trying to find the people that were customers and didn’t come back. That’s a major strategy.”
    Another what, not a how.

  • Pfizer CEO: “Our strategy is to survive this period.”
    Come on now.

CEO quotes credit Deep Dive.

  1. Yes, there are other meanings, e.g. strategy as a ploy / as a pattern / etc., but strategy as a plan is a great abstraction. 

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