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Strategy is a verb

October 02, 2019

You’re probably already looking up the word “strategy” to see if it’s a noun or a verb. Spoiler alert: it’s a noun.

I got to thinking about the word “strategy” and what it means after our recent Delve launch party. I was on the outside of a conversation between two people who had just met, and one threw out a challenge: Is design a noun or a verb? I thought about it and then considered other words I use a lot and the word strategy came to mind immediately. (We’ll table the “design” noun or verb question for my colleague to decide if he wants to write his own blog on that topic).

So, what do I think? Strategy should be a verb, but too often it’s envisioned as a stationary noun, and not a hyperactive verb. This mindset could explain why so many strategy efforts feel unproductive (and even dreadful).

When we treat “strategy” as only a strategic planning process – something with a start and a finish – we miss the point. Strategy is not something that happens at a point in time – it happens constantly. It’s always in motion. It’s active and should be driving more than just a bunch of meetings among a select few that result in some PowerPoint slides that could land with a thud (or with no sound at all). Much like there is a call by many designers that the practice of “design thinking” is often missing the real need to evolve to “design doing,” strategy is ready for some changes.

Here are five ways you can help strategy in your organization become more active:

  • Invite some guests to the head table. Involving only a few select people to create a strategy is pretty typical. A smaller core team means decisions can flow faster and are made at the right level of management. Where this falls apart, though, is when there is no prototyping of the thinking or decisions with other stakeholders. Invite other stakeholders not just to nod their heads, but to challenge ideas and push assumptions. Co-creation of the ideas will create advocates in the long run and make the strategy stronger as you diverge to other points of view.
  • Make the table bigger. Some leaders think that they have sole responsibility for all strategic initiatives. Some facets of strategy obviously need to be executed by other individuals or are done by all, but some initiatives and tactics can get stuck on a leader’s to-do list month after month when they could be delegated and tackled faster. What’s on your strategy to-do list? What can you pass on to someone else?
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Invite other stakeholders not just to nod their heads, but to challenge ideas and push assumptions.
  • Give permission to do or don’t. A good strategist knows that strategy is about making decisions – as much about what you will do, as what you won’t do. That decision is made at the beginning of the planning process. The problem is that in practice the will/won’t do mindset doesn’t always stick – we get pulled in different directions, are asked to take on more, get distracted from the big picture. When I worked at Target Corporation, there was a mantra that helped team members remember to think about strategy and gave permission to make a tough decision – “Strategic yes, thoughtful no.” It invited some reflection on if something was on-strategy and gave permission to push back when it was not.
  • Don’t forget to pivot. Some foundations of a strategy have a long shelf life, but with the speed of technology, proliferation of information, and movement of people in today’s world, if strategy isn’t being tweaked on a regular basis something is wrong. Check in on what was decided and ask if it still makes sense for where you’re at today – if it doesn’t, change it.
  • Keep the message moving. In my client-side career, I went through a lot of strategy efforts. They tended to manifest as a PowerPoint presentation that got shared at an annual company meeting and then emailed – and not much else. Treat strategy like an all-out marketing campaign across multiple channels – PowerPoints, posters, videos, websites, lanyard schwag, Slack channels, stickers, and signature lines on emails are all fair game. Put them on a promotional calendar with a message of the month. Remind leaders to share them at team meetings so the flywheel keeps spinning.

The bottom line

Keeping strategy in motion keeps your strategic muscle toned so you won’t be caught flat-footed when the competition or the world makes a shift. Try something new to see how you can make strategy a verb rather than a noun for your organization.

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