If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Any Road Will Take You There: The Importance of Strategy

Later this month, I am hosting a talk by Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide Chairman Bob Seelert. In preparation for this talk, I am reading his book, “Start with the Answer.” This afternoon, as I basked in the peaceful exhaustion of a Vinyasa class listening to a mellow arrangement of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in the “pink” area of the Pure Yoga studio, and reading through Mr. Seelert’s two-page chapters punctuated and summated by a chapter-specific “Bob’s Wisdom,” I sat up suddenly with a compelling need to tweet one of these takeaways: “If You Do Not Know Where You Are Going, Any Road Will Take You There.” Like Porter’s, “You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure,” this struck me as a key leadership tenet worth sharing with the tweetosphere.

But as I continued to read the chapter, I realized that it was much more. It was the holy grail. As a strategy consultant, and particularly in situations where I am the sole strategist leading the way on the development of a digital strategy roadmap or an overall marketing strategy, I find myself mired in the following question: What is a strategy, and what is a tactic. On a recent such project, I recall harkening back to my days as a pasta sauce brand manager when I was given the clear, organizationally-approved framework of objective, strategy, plan. Or… was it strategy, objective, plan? No, surely the first.

But in these new situations, what I saw as a strategy, others might see as a tactic, and vice-versa; and no one was really sure what the objective was. In fact, was the starting point an objective or a vision? Hmmmm… In one such situation, I found myself reaching out to Wharton classmates, Booz & Co. colleagues and other strategic gurus – only to find myself once again mired in the discussion of what the client viscerally responded to as a strategy vs. a plan.

Now, this is admittedly, not as clear cut as my three tiered delineation above. There is sometimes a cascading effect such that a high level “plan” might turn into a lower level “strategy” as the organization gets closer to implementation. I recall having this discussion with Charlie McKittrick at Ogilvy & Mather who nicely summed up his definition of strategy as: “a plan for the allocation of limited resources over time to reach an objective.” And in a note to him, I reiterated my comments above that “what may be a tactical element of a high level business strategy can also be the starting point for a marketing strategy (which in turn informs a creative plan and execution).”

All of that said – and serving as a sufficient preamble to allow me to shamelessly reprint what Mr. Seelert outlines in his book, here is a supremely clear cut, General Foods trained, overview of objective vs. strategy vs. plan:

“As a chief executive, it is your job to set a direction for the enterprise. Working with your team, you need to establish a clear vision or better yet, an inspirational dream that is specific to your situation and communicate it to everyone in the organization as often and as thoroughly as possible.

This also sets the stage for mapping objectives, strategies and plans that bring your directions to life and focus the efforts of your people. The first questions to clarify are: What is an objective? What is a strategy? What is a plan? Organizations can become tied in knots if they do not get this simple structure right.”

Hallelujah!!! I have been to those knots, and I have seen how tangled, turned around, and derailed a team can become.

“An objective can be described as a goal, an outcome, or an ‘end.’ It must be measurable.”

Hallelujah! B School 101: “specific, measurable results.” Anything can be measured – with enough creativity, “can-do” determination and cooperation.

“A strategy describes the boundaries you operate within to achieve the objectives. As such, they represent the ‘means to an end.’ A plan then is a set of action-oriented steps, taken in conformance with the strategies to achieve the objective.”

QED. Quite simple really.

“If the objective is to ‘build share of market,’ the supporting strategy might be, ‘utilize promotional incentives to generate trial among non-users.’ A plan flowing from this could be, ‘circulate a direct mail coupon of ‘x’ value on ‘y’ date.'”

The key here is the simplicity of the objective: “build share of market.” Simple but defining. Something that will keep you on track. An overarching framework by which all strategies and plans can be reviewed.

“Setting strategies is particularly important. By establishing boundaries, strategies help channel the organization’s efforts in the right direction and minimize the unfettered thinking and actions. They provide the mechanism for evaluating the strength or sensibility of plans as they come forth. The simple question to ask is, ‘Is the plan on strategy?'”

Hallelujah! So long, that is, as a company is willing to take a stand on its objective. That requires decision-making and consensus. “A well-defined problem is 90% solved.” – Einstein

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