“Strategy,” “strategize,” and “strategic” seem to be buzzwords these days; used in just about every industry and communication. We no longer have mere initiatives, leadership, or communications, we have “strategic initiatives,” “strategic leadership,” and “strategic communications.” Teams get together to “strategize” rather than just plan, and even our students are being taught to find “strategies” to solve math problems. This all sounds very formal and impressive, yet these words seem to mean various thing to different people. Developing common vocabulary is important not only for clarity, but in order to create a deeper understanding of how strategy can be used to enhance the goal-setting process.
The roots of the word strategy come from Greek, referring to generalship or leading an army. The word has been modernized to refer to planning or the process of planning in order to meet a specific goal. Businessdictionary.com defines strategy as: “A method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.” Dictionary.com’s definition is: “A plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result.” Cambridge dictionary defines strategy as: “A long-range plan for achieving something or reaching a goal, or the skill of making such plans.”
All of these definitions refer to a process or method for making plans, but don’t define what that process is. How is strategizing different from planning? Is it different?
Planning and strategizing are, and should be, different activities. Planning or goal-setting involves the identification a goal or outcome and establishing the steps one will take to reach the goal or desired outcome. One unique element of strategy-making is that it is data-informed. Strategizing is the process of gathering data to inform the decisions or maneuvers one makes regarding how to reach a goal or desired outcome.
I define strategy as:
Data-informed actions, processes, or operations designed to guide the steps to be taken to reach a stated goal.
Strategy provides the path towards a goal that informs the development of action steps to reach the goal.
Semantics are important in this case, because there is a significant difference between goal-setting and strategizing that is all too frequently overlooked. If leaders understood the differences between goals, strategies, and actions, they would be more successful in fully accomplishing their aspirations. To lightly use the words strategy, strategize, and strategic without fully understanding their meaning or potential is not just poor word choice, it can have an impact on outcomes and success.
A goal is a stated outcome or result. That is easy. Articulating meaningful, challenging, and productive goals is more difficult, and is impacted by a variety of factors. There are methods and processes for identifying and describing the “right” goals for an individual or organization- which won’t be examined in this piece. Nonetheless, once a goal has been established, a strategy for how the goal will be met can then be developed. This is the step that so many leap over, going right to the action steps or objectives. Without the boundaries of a strategy, action steps can become a long list of unconnected tasks to be accomplished. They are less meaningful because they do not connect why the goal was established to how the goal will be met.
For example: many independent schools have the goal of increasing or stabilizing enrollment. Schools may state their goal in different ways such as wanting to enroll mission-appropriate students, increase enrollment in certain divisions, or better engage families. Then they list action steps: create marketing and/or communications plans, update admissions materials or processes, etc. However, they often don’t address why enrollment isn’t where they want it to be. Is it a marketing issue? A conversion issue? A retention issue? Each of these causes or “whys” will need a different set of responses. And the responses (or action steps) will be better understood and acted upon by the community if they are guided by a cohesive, organizing strategy.
This process can and should be used in all goal-setting; whether large scale such as comprehensive strategic plan or in smaller, everyday goals. It can even be applied to personal goal-setting such as reducing stress, losing weight, becoming more organized, etc.
The problem is not that people mis-use the words strategy, strategize, and strategic. The problem is that people don’t know how to strategize and be strategic; by using data to inform their process for meeting goals. Strategy can and should be a key element in any organization’s regular, routine process of making both short-term and long-term goals and developing methods and actions to achieve them.