What strategy is all about

Strategy doesn't need to be complicated.

Check out this definitive guide to strategy to help you make smarter choices and get clear on your big picture.


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Is strategy part of your job?

You might be involved in organisational strategy, business plans, projects, programmes, or strategic initiatives if you're a leader, consultant, or advisor. In a sea of jargon and buzzwords, it's easy to feel like strategy is complicated—but it doesn't need to be that way.

In this guide, learn the basics of strategy—what it means, why it matters, how to create one, and what you can do to make it real.

Please just read through, or jump to a section below.

1. What is strategy?

Senior leaders and CEOs discuss objectives, missions, visions, purpose, strategies, approaches, principles, values, action plans, and initiatives—it's enough to give anyone a headache. Somewhere along the way, we let the buzzwords take over.

Don't try googling "strategy definition" - it's a nightmare. The truth is that strategy is simple.

Strategy is how we choose to achieve our goals

That simple definition has three critical components: goals, choice, and approach.

Strategy is to achieve our goals

We only need a strategy when we want to change something. We set a goal, or goals, that define where we want to go, and then we look at options for how we'll make those goals a reality. 

Goals are the why of our strategy. They should be:

  • Long-term
  • Aspirational
  • Outcome-focused
  • Not quickly or easily achieved.

Your goals might be called a purpose, vision, mission statement or big-picture objective. Regardless of the term you use, they should focus on the change you want to make in the world rather than how you will do it.

Strategy is about choices

It's easy to become overwhelmed when we think about all the different ways we might reach our goals. For example, if our goal is to be the market leader in our category, we should consider the best way to achieve that.

Private sector strategy

In the private sector, the “why” is profit. The way we choose to achieve that is to sustain competitive advantage. In business, most companies compete on one of the following high-level approaches:

  1. Differentiation - offering a new or innovative service or product or doing things differently from your competitors.

  2. Price - delivering the most affordable option on the market.

  3. Quality - providing the best features on the market.

Drilled down, we have further options, such as:

  • Reach - achieving size, scale and market share that dominates the market.

  • Depth - nurturing long and deep relationships with key clients.

  • Niche - cornering a particular corner of the market with deep domain expertise.

Public sector strategy

In the public sector, the “why” is public value. We achieve that through collaborative advantage, and our strategic approaches reflect that in government.

For example, an agency seeking better public health outcomes agency might choose one of the following approaches:

  • Education - working with educators and the community to make better lifestyle choices

  • Direct delivery - providing front-line health assistance to afflicted individuals and families

  • Partnerships - supporting the work of specialist groups in business and the community

  • Targeting - allocating the bulk of resources to specific high-need groups.

Strategy asks us to weigh the options available and decide which approach best bridges our aspirations and capabilities. When we make that decision, we need to exclude other possible choices. It is rarely a lack of ideas that taints our strategies but rather a lack of focus.

Strategy is about how

Many people confuse strategy with plans. Plans describe the actions we'll take, what they will cost, how long they will take, and who will be responsible. Plans provide a prescription, but strategy offers direction.

Strategy outlines why we want to change and how we will prioritise effort and resources. Put simply, strategy is not what we decide but  how we'll decide in the future.

While plans list projects, budgets, actions and initiatives, strategies define goals, priorities and chosen approaches.

Example: Website improvement

A plan would outline the steps to improve our website. The overarching strategy, however, would clarify our priorities and define our approach. If our priority is to achieve brand recognition, we will use that to inform our broader options portfolio.

A website is one way to achieve brand recognition. Still, we might also consider other options that better align with our circumstances, constraints, and capabilities - such as nurturing word-of-mouth referrals, sponsorship, or media engagement.

At the strategic level, it's important not to get distracted by the potential details around execution before we're clear on our most important priorities. Otherwise, we risk overwhelming ourselves with actions that are not well aligned with our big picture.

Strategies do not assume they know the answer about what to do. Plans do.


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2. Why you need a strategy

Many successful businesses, teams, and organisations do just fine without a strategy. They treat their business planning as a tick-box exercise and spend little time worrying about the why and how of their work.

That's fine, but not the smartest way to do things. 

Organisations that have a strategy tend to:

  • Achieve greater long-term success.
  • Maximise true revenue potential.
  • Build a stronger brand identity.
  • Maintain more engaged staff.
  • Save time in meetings.
  • Make better decisions.

Not only that, strategy has operational advantages that make your workplace a more fulfilling place to work.

Strategy maximises luck

Businesses that don't have a strategy rely on luck, coincidence and good fortune. You might stumble on success, but you'll do better to have a clear path forward. With a strategy, you can seize lucky opportunities and shape them to suit your direction rather than being reactively led by your surroundings.

Strategy drives focus

Because strategy involves eliminating choices, we have more clarity about what we will do. That means everyday decisions about what to do, who to hire, what to invest in and which projects to prioritise become simpler, and we reduce the risk of people duplicating or cancelling each other's efforts.

Strategy opens our eyes

Strategic planning requires us to examine our capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses closely, making it difficult to ignore potential problems or competitive blind spots. A good decision-making process means we're better informed and more self-aware.

Strategy motivates people

Our teams love coming to work and being part of something bigger. A clear sense of purpose, a defined mission, and clear priorities give your people something to work towards and improve productivity and engagement. 

Strategy helps us keep track

When we know what we're trying to achieve, it becomes easier to check whether we're on track. Without a clear path, it becomes more difficult to assess whether we're making progress or simply busy.

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3. How to develop a strategy

There are many ways to develop a strategy, and what you do will depend on the size and scope of your team.

To create a great strategy, you need the following ingredients:

  • A strategy team
  • Some strategy space
  • A strategy conversation
  • A strategy document
  • A commitment to strategy iteration

Assemble your strategy team

Whether you're a one-person enterprise or a complex organisation, strategy should be a team sport.

Testing your thinking and spot gaps is difficult when you're too close to the details. If you're creating a strategy for your freelance work or personal projects, make sure to include a close friend or trusted advisor.

If you're a larger team or organisation, include a diverse range of people who understand your business, context and options.

Take some strategy space

Perspective is a critical element of all strategy processes. It's hard to make good decisions and see the big picture when you're too close to the work, so finding space - physically, mentally and in time - to do this work is important. Strategy needs space.

To create the right space, pay careful attention to:

  • Why are you meeting? Know the purpose of your conversation.

  • What are your desired outcomes? What does success look like in the end?

  • Who needs to be there? Key decision-makers who must own and implement your strategic plan should be involved.

  • How can you set up for success? Set clear expectations for all participants ahead of time, agree on key stages and milestones, and choose a spacious, well-lit venue.

Schedule strategy conversations

The most important thing to remember is that strategy is not a document. Strategy is a conversation. Your strategy should clarify your intentions at a point in time and be regularly referred to as you move forward towards your goals.

In Nail Your Strategic Plan, we recommend having three critical conversations to develop your strategy.

Conversation 1: Build understanding

If people don’t know why – they don’t care how! Taking the time to build a shared understanding before barrelling into your planning brings both perspective and engagement.

When we build a shared understanding of our context, we create an important frame to guide the rest of our strategic planning process.

Three questions to answer in your first conversation
  • Why do we exist?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?

Conversation 2: Shape choices

You can do anything—but not everything. In this conversation, you will make sense of the information you’ve produced in your first conversation so you can focus on what matters most. You'll use that focus to determine what you will stop doing or not do and what you will do more of.

By the end of this conversation, you will have a clear idea of where you will focus your energy and attention and what that means for your team or organisation.

Three questions to answer in your second conversation
  • What matters most?
  • What does success look like?
  • What do our focus areas mean?

Conversation 3: Make decisions

Meetings that matter drive people to action. Too many strategy conversations end in the room and fail to change behaviour. Your third conversation is critical for securing commitment to your desired approach. Here, you will make clear decisions about what you're doing next and how you will respond as conditions shift.

Three questions to answer in your third conversation
  • What comes next?
  • Who is responsible?
  • How will we respond to change?

Strategy documents

The strategy document is the most recognised element of a strategy development process and is often the goal. While important, your document is only useful insofar as it represents the outcome of your strategy conversation and inspires regular attention to its contents.

For that reason, it's important to make your document brief, clear and visible.

Keep it brief

One to three pages is ideal. Five is the maximum.

Use Plain English

Jargon is difficult to understand and undermines the credibility of your document. Instead, use the same language that people used in workshop conversations.

Simple is best 

Don’t panic about design – aim for simplicity and clarity over aesthetics.

One page to rule them all

Ensure your first page stands alone with the most important information: what you’re trying to do and how you will do it. 

Commit to strategy iteration

Once your document is complete, it's tempting to think the job is done - but it's just beginning. Strategy is a long game that needs lots of short-term attention. Once the ink is dry, the challenging work begins - implementing, iterating and evaluating progress.

While you still have momentum and everyone is excited about your new direction, build in your iteration plan now. For most places, that will look like regular progress updates plus scheduled reviews. When strategy stays front of mind, we're much more likely to keep on track.


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4. Turn strategy into action

Unfortunately, most strategy processes go silent shortly after they've been completed. It's not because we don't care but because the everyday work, tasks and emails overwhelm us. Before we know it, we've fallen behind on important milestones and can't remember the strategic priorities we identified.

This is where planning comes into its own. At every planning or progress meeting, strategy should be a compulsory invitee. Making it visible is a great start, so strategy posters are a common feature of most office walls.

But to really stick to your strategy throughout the year, you'll need to do more than that. Look for ways to weave your strategic intentions into your everyday work. Simple tips include things like:

  • Include objectives in your reports, agendas and memos.
  • Refer regularly to strategy in team meetings and internal communications.
  • Post your strategy to your website.
  • Include your strategic goals in your planning conversations as a test or lens to shape your choices about operations and implementation.

5. Strategic skills

Strategy is the future of work. According to the World Economic Forum, the skills most in demand in the future workforce are strategic problem-solving, creativity, sense-making, and analysis. Despite that, we fail to teach strategy skills as part of traditional management and leadership education.

Being strategic is not an inherent skill; you can learn to look at problems differently and strengthen your strategy muscle with intention and practice.

Five key skills for you to focus on are

  • Flexibility – is your ability to respond to change. By actively cultivating your internal and external awareness and staying flexible to your surroundings, you can take more strategic action as the world changes around you.
  • Decision-making is your ability to make good choices. By focusing on how you decide rather than what you choose, you will consistently make more effective choices. Learn the hallmarks of a good decision process to be a more strategic person.
  • Systems thinking is the ability to see how things fit together. When you can transcend the everyday to understand the different parts and processes involved in your organisational system, you craft interventions that have a greater cross-border impact.
  • Performance is your ability to get things done. When you can focus your time, energy, and attention carefully, delegate appropriately, and manage risk, you progress more on your most important goals.

If you're unsure how strategic you are or which skills you should focus on first, take this handy 3-minute quiz. You'll receive a strategic skills assessment and a free cheat sheet with some handy tips about what to do next.


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