Good Strategy, Bad Strategy,… Everywhere Strategy

As first published at:

In the recent years, it’s getting increasingly fashionable to talk about strategy. And here it is my take on the matter… If everyone talks strategy, why not me?

Strategy is everywhere, in every little piece of our life. In the past it was a highly-specialized field, a territory reserved for Army and Government, for CEOs and directors… Today, we are all “strategising” – in business, marketing is no longer just marketing, it  is marketing strategy; supply and distribution is supply strategy; sales and trading is trading strategy… even at home we are developing family strategy, life strategy, etc… And what is even funnier that today you can get a Masters or PhD in Strategy, you can teach strategy, preach strategy or just like me today – blog about strategy… Anyway, my point here is that it is no longer cool to be expert, specialist or just manager, today we are all strategists and leaders.

Never mind the wording and the titles, the strategy has always been and will always be a crucial part of any  human initiative, business or personal one. However, the matter of fact is that in every project the number of strategy definitions equals the number of people involved in it.

A few years ago, in the ocean of books discussing strategy I came across Richard Rumelts’ “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters”. It was praised and recommended as one of the “must-read” books on corporate strategy by many respectful companies and Universities, starting with McKinsey, General Motors and Mattel and finishing with London Business School and University of Pennsylvania. So I gave it a try… And I discovered that it was a lot more than just a good read on corporate strategy. It is a simple yet comprehensive take on what strategy actually is and is not, and the examples and cases discussed in it resonated with my personal experience in strategy and its application.


I can’t agree more when he was differentiating strategy from success.

“Strategy cannot be a useful concept if it is a synonym for success. Nor can it be useful tool if it is confused with ambition, determination, inspirational leadership, and innovation. Ambition is drive and zeal to excel. Determination is commitment and grit. Innovation is the discovery and engineering of new ways to do things. Inspirational leadership motivates people to sacrifice for their own and the common good. And strategy, responsive to innovation and ambition, selects the path, identifying how, why, and where leadership and determination are to be applied.”

The strategy is only the concept, it is not the success or the failure of any project. Yet, if there’s no strategy at all, then it won’t be surprising if the project fails. It is, however, valid the other way round as well – only having a strategy does not automatically bring success.

And then there is a good strategy and a bad strategy. Rumelt defines good and bad strategy:

… A good strategy has an essential logical structure that I call the kernel. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. The guiding policy specified the approach to dealing with the obstacles called out in the diagnosis. It is like a signpost, marking the direction forward but not defining the details of the trip. Coherent actions are feasible coordinated policies, resource commitments, and actions designed to carry out the guiding policy.”

… Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes. One form of bad strategy occurs when there is a scrambled mess of things to accomplish – a “dog’s dinner” of strategic objectives. A long list of “things to do”, often mislabeled as “strategies” or “objectives”, is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders make suggestions as to things theory would like to see drone. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection into the “strategic plan”. Then, in recognition that it is a dog’s dinner, the label “long-term” is added so that none of them need to be done today.”

And here is what I think makes a good and working strategy:

  1. It is short and simple, yet clear and meaningful.
  2. It is practical, i.e. it is easy enough to derive a plan of next steps out of it.
  3. It is important, meaning that business owners and managers make time and space for it and take it seriously.
  4.  It gives answers to simple questions, like: What do we do? Where do we want to get to? Can we afford it?, etc…
  5. It is a living thing, evolves with the business and time.

Looks and sounds very much common sense, right? However, there are a couple of traps we all tend to fall into, no matter the size of the business,… actually the bigger the company the easier it is to make these mistakes.

  1. Rush, rush, rush… We’re constantly in a hurry to do, to produce, to sell, to promote,… put it shortly – to make money. Naturally, in the hustle to see results of our effort, we quite often find thinking and planning rather boring and abstract. This is one reason why strategy is often squeezed in the corner of the business, while we are far too busy with “practical”staff.
  2. Criticism… No one likes to be criticized, right? Especially if one believes in his/her brilliant idea. But let’s be honest and get real here, even Steve Jobs and Richard Branson haven’t built Apple and Virgin all by themselves. They had their ideas and strategy regularly scrutinized, they made sure to get the right people on board and to listen to what they had to say. Often we take other people’s opinion too personal, and this stops us from getting the real value out of it.
  3. Strategy paper… It is not just a paper, not just another standard document you get written once on a template, then lock it in a drawer ready to be presented to whoever happens to ask you if you have a strategy… if anybody ever asks. The strategy is not something you have so that you could show to others once. No, it is for you, it is very specific to the needs of your business. And it changes, evolves with the time and the business development.

This is the briefest summary of my encounter with strategy, mostly corporate one. In the last 8 years, I spent most of my time at work developing strategy, delivering on multiple strategic projects and reviews. And there are always the same traps waiting for us to fall into…

I would very much like to finish with one more quote from Richard Rumelt:

“… Motivation is an essential part of life and success, and a leader may justly ask for “one last push”, but the leader’s job is more than that. The job of the leader is also to create the conditions that will make that push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.”

By Sonya Gibson