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What Makes A Strategy “Good?”

2023 September 17
by Greg Satell

One of the most frustrating statements I come across is that “we had a good strategy, but just couldn’t execute it.” That’s nonsense. Obviously, if you couldn’t execute, there were some important factors that you didn’t take into account. You miscalculated in some significant way. So how was that a good strategy?

This raises an important question: What makes a strategy good? The concept of strategy gets thrown around so much and so incompetently, few stop to define the term. Strategy often becomes self-referential, a consensus-driven story that no one dares to question, but everyone is duty bound to carry out, for better or worse.

One helpful concept is the German military principle of Schwerpunkt, which roughly translates to “focal point.” You need to pick the battles that will prove decisive, the ones that matter and which you can win. Or, as Richard Rumelt has put it, good strategy puts relative strength against relative weakness. Figuring that out is what makes the difference.

Choosing The Right Battles, Fighting With The Right Weapons

Che Guevara was, in many ways, the prototypical revolutionary. Charismatic and brilliant, he was a master at guerilla warfare, launching revolutions against authoritarian regimes across Africa and South America. Yet although he may have won some battles, he lost the wars and, in the end, was executed for his actions.

That’s not unusual. Violent uprisings almost always fail and studies have shown that nonviolent revolutions do much, much better. In the early 1960s a political scientist named Gene Sharp began to figure out why. Governments have significant advantages in the use of violence. Successful revolutionaires, he found, use alternate weapons rooted in psychology, sociology and economics, where they can build strength and regimes are vulnerable.

In much the same way, innovative firms are often poorly served by trying to identify the largest addressable market for a new product or service. Those are the customers incumbents have been serving for years, where they have vastly superior knowledge, experience and relationships. Competing for that business will inevitably be an uphill battle.

A better strategy is to identify a hair on fire use case — a customer who needs a problem fixed so badly that they are willing to overlook the inevitable glitches in a new product or service. They will help identify shortcomings early and collaborate to correct them. As things get ironed out you can gain traction and compete for bigger markets.

For example, Tesla didn’t try to sell electric cars to everyone, at least not at first. Instead it sold high performance, environmentally friendly roadsters to Silicon Valley millionaires. Rather that compete with the big automakers head on, it pursued a market they couldn’t. A good strategy is specific. It doesn’t apply to everyone, but rather to a particular context.

Undermining Sources Of Power

During the civil rights movement, activists faced an uphill battle in the deep south, where the segregationists enjoyed a monopoly on state power, controlling not only legislatures, but police departments and the courts. Black citizens were terrorized and had absolutely no legal recourse. In many cases, it was the law enforcement officers who were doing the terrorizing.

But what if the activists weren’t poor, black and vulnerable, but elite, white and connected? That was essentially the strategy of the Freedom Summer Project, which recruited students from prestigious schools to spend the summer in Mississippi working to register voters and educate poor black children.

Almost immediately three of the activists disappeared and a national crisis ensued. President Johnson sent an army of FBI agents to investigate and the media descended onto the state. Terrified parents, whose children remained in Mississippi, sent urgent letters to their representatives in Congress. Local media in upscale white communities in the north closely covered events as they unfolded.

Of course, given that blacks were killed and tortured with complete disregard for decades, this sudden torrent of concern only underlined the inherent racism of the system. Yet still, that’s what made the strategy work. Civil rights leaders were able to put the strength of the national media and federal government, as well as the clout of industry, against the relative weakness of what passed for power in Mississippi.

The Freedom Summer’s exposure of Jim Crow would have significant ripple effects throughout the 1960s. It would help lead to the 1965 Voting Rights Act the very next year and many of the activists would go on to lead movements for women’s equality, for workers’ rights and against the Vietnam war. The country would be forever changed.

Creating A Dilemma Instead Of A Conflict

I once had a six-month assignment to restructure the operations of a troubled media company and the sales director was a real stumbling block. She never overtly objected. but was quietly sabotage progress. For example, she promised to hand over the clients she worked directly with to her staff, but never seemed to get around to it.

It was obvious that she intended to slow-walk everything until the six months were over and then return everything back to the way it was. As a longtime senior employee, she had considerable political capital within the organization and, because she was never directly insubordinate, creating a direct confrontation with her would be risky and unwise.

So rather than create a conflict, I designed a dilemma. I arranged with the CEO of a media buying agency for one of the salespeople to meet with a senior buyer and take over the account. The Sales Director had two choices. She could either let the meeting go ahead and lose her grip on the situation or try to derail the meeting. She chose the latter and was fired for cause. Once she was gone, her mismanagement became obvious and sales shot up.

Key to the success of a dilemma action is that it is seen as a constructive act rooted in a shared value. In the case of the Sales Director, she had agreed to give up her accounts and setting up the meeting was aligned with that agreement. That’s what created the dilemma. She had to choose between violating the shared value or giving up her resistance.

When you respond to an attack, you are fighting a battle in a time, place and context that your opposition has chosen. When you design a dilemma, on the other hand, you are setting the parameters, which allows you to bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness.

Mastering Strategic Conflict

We tend to think of change as a journey to bring about some alternative future state, but that’s only half of the story. The truth is that future state is in a strategic conflict with the status quo, which has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. You can never bring about the desired future state until you address the status quo.

The key to doing that is to define the focal point of your efforts—the Schwerpunkt—where you can bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness. However Schwerpunkt is a dynamic, not a static, concept. As your actions impact the context, the focal point will necessarily change, requiring you to adjust with strategic agility.

In How Big Things Get Done, Bent Flyvbjerg argues that any planning big project requires experimentation and testing. You don’t start with answers, but questions. Planning consists of a series of low-cost virtual experiments in which you are exploring possibilities, identifying opportunities and exposing problems. We want to fail in planning, where it’s cheap, so we minimize failure in the real world, where it costs us dearly.

That’s why we need to take a more Bayesian approach to strategy, in which we don’t pretend that we have the “right” strategy, but endeavor to make it less wrong over time. Good strategy isn’t a master plan, but a process of discovery.  It is, most of all, an iterative set of choices made about how to address meaningful challenges.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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