The 7 Types of 'Not Actually Strategy' Strategies

In Alice in Wonderland, a disoriented Alice comes across the mysterious Cheshire Cat: "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asks Alice. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "I don't much care where -" said Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat. "- so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation. "Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." Without a strategy to connect its activity and investments to, a company will be sure to end up somewhere, but where it ends up will be by accident not design.

This often cited exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat is reminiscent of many conversations I’ve had with senior leaders when I ask them why they have set up certain initiatives or how they know recent decisions they’ve made are the right ones. Few answer with any clarity because in most cases, clear vision and strategy are absent. Where strategy does exist, it rarely includes metrics for success and tends not to be connected to the company’s portfolio and investment and resource allocation decisions. In fact, when I ask someone to share their strategy with me, I most commonly get a list of excuses as to why they can’t. If you can’t readily share your strategy, you don’t have one.

From my own experiences and the many conversations I’ve had with others, I have categorised what I have found to be the 7 most common types of what I call ‘Not Actually Strategy’ organisational strategies.

1. The Vague Strategy

This is a series of vague statements that anyone could shoehorn their work into and claim strategic alignment, and believe me they do when it means they can secure extra resources or money. The Vague Strategy will comprise statements like: ‘We will be digital in everything we do’ or ‘We will have a relentless customer focus’’. I understand the intent, but I don’t know why this is an important outcome for the company, what success looks like or what types of things they’re going to prioritise and invest in, in order to achieve the outcome. More importantly, no one who works for the company knows what it means either. With the Vague Strategy, no one knows how to measure success and it’s open to interpretation and abuse.

2. The Plan

This might be a delivery plan for a specific solution or a budget plan detailing how the company’s money is going to be divided amongst the various organisational silos. In the case of the latter, it’s pretty much a bun-fight on a page. The remit of many strategy functions is often limited to budget allocation, so this is hardly surprising. With The Plan, it’s hard to make any adjustments and those executing The Plan will be focussed on achieving the delivery milestones. Because The Plan doesn’t usually articulate the anticipated outcomes, benefits or clear success metrics, reporting against The Plan tends to be limited to the financials.

3. The Competing Strategies

Here you have several different strategies and initiatives running concurrently across an organisation. There might be a Digital Transformation Strategy, an Innovation Strategy, a Technology Strategy, a Recruitment Strategy, an EDI Strategy etc. And my all-time favourite: The CEO’s Top Ten. It’s most common where an organisation is undergoing a significant transformation (usually digital) and you have several different transformation initiatives being led by different parts of the business. The problem is not that these different strategies exist, it’s that none of them align or connect to each other. To employees, they all appear to be equally important, which makes it harder, not easier, for employees to make prioritisation decisions. Competing Strategies result in confusion, duplication, and overworked and disengaged employees. Currently, it's the the most common type of strategy problem I'm seeing and it's one of the main reasons (Digital) Transformations fail to actually deliver the level of transformation they promise.

4. The Shelfware Strategy

This is a strategy document that is akin to a PhD thesis and the only person who has actually read it is the person who wrote it. Even the ‘Executive Summary’ is 5 pages long. It also tends to be the output form the team of eye-wateringly expensive consultants brought in because the CEO and other senior leaders didn’t have the time to do any strategic thinking themselves. Unfortunately, The Shelfware Strategy is never connected to the organisation’s employees. This weighty document instead sits on a shelf gathering dust whilst unrelated organisational activity continues at pace.

5. The Draft Strategy

This is the main excuse I get from someone who can’t share their strategy with me because, as the name suggests, The Draft Strategy is forever in draft. It takes at least a year to write and it feels like every senior leader in the company needs to squeeze their priorities and agendas into it. Wordsmiths get involved and debate endlessly over the use and interpretation of specific words and so the delays go on. By the time it’s finished, if it is ever finished, it’s out of date. But frankly, most people lost interest several months ago anyway.

6. The Strategy Refresh

This is another self-deceiving tactic and excuse I hear as to why a strategy can’t currently be shared. The Strategy Refresh feels a bit like pulling a long forgotten old bike out the shed and dusting off the cobwebs to see if it’s any use. You then invest some time touching up the paintwork, oiling the chain and adding a new bell or light. You actually get quite excited about it and keep it out all summer, fully intending to use it. But as autumn arrives and the leaves start to fall, you concede it’s probably best to put it back in the shed. Maybe you’ll try again next year.

7. The Totally Absent Strategy

There isn’t a strategy, not even an out-of-date one. But at least no one is pretending there is. I rather like this one, as at least it’s honest.

So, which of the 7 Types of ‘Not Actually Strategy’ Strategies have you seen? And if you’re honest with yourself, which ones have you been responsible for or contributed to?

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