The strategy conversation you can only have here

Strategy is about getting into a more powerful position


The problem with the word strategy is that it has been so overused. A good strategy aims to win the war or beat the competition, but the word strategy has been so overworked it is often added just for effect, with little meaning.

Strategy implies that you’ve done some clever thinking otherwise it would just be a plan. But the word is often associated with lots of hubris, as with Rebekah Neumann, wife and “strategic thought partner” of the infamous Adam, whose strategy for WeWork ran it on a roller coaster for a few years before smashing it, and its $47 billion valuation, into the ground.

It sometimes seems that just using the word strategy in a presentation adds to your credibility. I would like to offer a way of seeing the word in a much more useful way.

I first came across strategy while working for AIESEC International in Brussels. In September 1992, a colleague and I flew to Belgrade to help solve a difficult problem.

A war had broken out and the 24 local committees scattered throughout the then Yugoslavia needed to decide whether they were still part of a country that was rapidly been broken up into pieces or were they perhaps the new national committee of Slovenia and Croatia who had already declared their secession.

We sat for about 72 hours debating it with all the AIESECers involved. It was tense. There were no easy answers. There was not a simple route to a better position than the one they found themselves in. This was, as Robert Greene calls it - my first apprenticeship in strategy. I was learning.

Later I experienced strategy in my own businesses and those that I worked for. Where were we going? Why would that be a better position? How do we overcome these obstacles?

In 2007 after a guest lecture to students at the University of Cape Town, I was asked if I would lecture strategy to ±400 final year Business Science students. I fessed up immediately that lecturing wasn’t really my thing, but that I would be happy to share what I had learned from my experiences of strategy from the business world.

Off I went, my next apprenticeship, learning how to create an environment where others could learn about strategy.

Every year the publishers of strategy text books would send me the latest editions of their books hoping that I would prescribe them for our students.

The books were numerous. They were dense and most followed the format of a major breakdown between developing strategy and implementing strategy with the development section split between planned and emergent strategy.

If you’re feeling lost at the end of the previous paragraph then imagine another 400 pages of the same.

Then there was Lawrence Freedman. His book, Strategy: A history stood apart and included some gems that have stayed with me. From it I translated a definition of strategy that made a lot of sense.

Strategy is about getting into a more powerful position
(my paraphrase).

It’s such a great definition because it is concise - which is contrary to almost everything else to do with the word strategy. It sums up exactly what needs to happen for a strategy to be successful.

You either are in a more powerful position as a result of the strategy or not. And it leaves open the question of what more powerful looks like. I share this slide with some options for what more powerful may look like when discussing it.

You can throw anything at this definition, competitors, the environment, innovation, organisational design, Porter’s Five Forces, McKinsey’s 7S Framework or any other combination of consultants acronyms.

If we throw WeWork at this definition then we would have to judge their strategy as poor. They are definitely not in a more powerful position after burning through $18.5 billion .

More powerful sums it up.

What I really like is that it can apply to our organisations and it can also apply to ourselves personally.

What is a more powerful position for you and your business?

Can you define it and then set out to achieve it?

Next time you use the word strategy, make sure that you also include how you will be in a more powerful position as a result of your 'strategy'. That's much more useful.