A strategy can be viewed as a way of achieving an objective. A coach’s strategy for the football game might be to attack relentlessly on the ground. A general’s strategy for the battle might be to feint an attack to the center while flanking from the right. A CEO’s strategy for the business might be to become #1 or #2 in every market and to withdraw from markets where her company can’t be #1 or #2. A corrupt politician’s strategy to get elected might be to align with the “smaller government” movement to gain votes while secretly taking money under the table from businesses who need special favors.
The Common Thread
As diverse as these strategies are, they all share one thing: they deal with a limited amount of time and resources by focusing that time and those resources in one particular direction.
The football coach knows that a game only has 60 minutes of play, that his opposing team has the best pass defense in the league, and that his own defensive team isn’t as good as theirs. So he plays to his team’s strengths, and focuses as much playing time as possible to keep the ball on the ground and to chew up the clock by making short gains.
The general knows that his army is a pretty even match for the enemy forces, but he rearranges his troops to move more of his troops to the right, hoping to keep the move secret until he attacks in surprise from that direction. While he’s focusing more of his soldiers on the right side, he’s leaving the left side vulnerable. But he’s betting that the enemy won’t realize the vulnerability until the right side troops overwhelm a significant number of the enemy.
The CEO has done enough research to show that, in these particular markets, only the #1 and #2 competitors get enough market share to be profitable. So by withdrawing from any market in which that #1 or #2 status can’t be achieved, she can focus her investment on increasing the market share and profitability of her #1 and #2 products.
The corrupt politician wants fame and riches. By aligning with the “smaller government” camp, he gets an instant bump in the polls without having to invest time and advertising money in building a name and position for himself. By taking money under the table, he builds a war chest to use for ads against his political opponents, and he lays the groundwork for a stream of income that will lead to the riches he’s coveting.
The Road Not Taken
Every one of these strategies — even the strategy of the ethically challenged politician — deals with choices. And for every choice that’s made, there’s an alternative choice that wasn’t made.
The football coach could have counted on surprise and tried mixing up his plays to catch the opposing team in a moment of weakness. He could have violated the spirit of the game and asked his players to play dirty and try to physically cripple key players on the opposing team.
The general could have counted on sheer will and patriotism to win in a direct confrontation. He could have ordered a full attack right down the middle of enemy forces.
The CEO could have reasoned that no one gets to be #1 or #2 without being #3 or #4 first. She could have invested heavily in advertising or new products for her lesser markets, hoping that she could break through into a #2 position in a few years.
The corrupt politician could have taken an honest and ethical route, counting on his own integrity to capture votes. He could have looked forward to income from the lecture circuit after he retired from a well-respected political career.
If Your “Strategy” Doesn’t Reflect a Choice, It Isn’t a Strategy
It’s not a strategy to tell your team, “Do the best you can” because no trade-offs have been made. It’s not a strategy to tell your army, “Keep calm and carry on” because what’s the alternative, “Panic and run around in circles”? It’s not a strategy to tell your employees, “Increase sales 20% this year” because even though you’re being specific about a goal, you’re not giving them any information about how to make choices. Which sales? How? By doing what?
And it’s not a strategy for the politician to say, “Win the race, then get rich,” because it doesn’t give specifics on how he’s going to win and how he’s going to get rich.
If no choices are being made, then no strategy is involved.
Shotgun or Rifle?
Take a look at what you call the “strategies” for your business. Do they reflect a choice that has been made? Is there an alternative choice that could have been the desired strategy instead? Do the strategies focus resources on one area in preference to another, essentially shutting down one approach while investing resources in the chosen direction?
Committees tend to develop “shotgun strategies”: a laundry list of items that spread effort in a number of different and diverging directions, without a clear preference for one objective over another. Strategies set by one person, or set by a focused group of people, tend to be “rifle strategies” instead. They maximize the time and resources of the business by focusing on a few key things.
Shotguns are used for small game that moves quickly. You cover a large area with the blast and hope that at least a few of the pellets hit a target. Sometimes you shoot at multiple birds in flight, and hope to bring down at least one.
Rifles are used for large game. It takes more power to bring down large game so you have to focus the entire bullet on one key spot. You have to pick a specific target, and concentrate on what it takes to deliver that one target.
If you know where you want to go, and you know how you want to get there, then use a rifle strategy. You can achieve big things for your organization.
If you don’t know where you’re going and you have no idea how to get there, then by all means use a shotgun strategy (although I hesitate in even calling it a strategy). Who knows? You might accidentally be successful. But since shotguns are used for small game, you won’t achieve very much.
What strategy approach are you using? Do you know where you want to go? Have you made choices?