When you search the web for definitions of âstrategy,â they all sound reasonable … except to all the people who proposed a different definition. No one seems to know exactly what strategy is, but they do know they don’t agree with anyone else about it. Apparently, asking for a definition of strategy is like asking philosophers for the meaning of life. Good luck getting a consistent answer.
In the martech world, everyone wants to have a âstrategyâ and be âstrategic.â But if no one can agree on what those terms mean, how can we achieve that? Too often, the strategy is viewed as a piece of paper that has no bearing on day-to-day work.
The existing definitions of strategy have similar problems: theyâre hard to use and remember, they introduce too many undefined terms, and theyâre too long. Iâm no philosophy professor or military scholar, but if I can introduce a definition of strategy that solves those problems and works better for the martech community, why not try?
Hereâs my definition: Strategy is knowing today why and how you’re going to win tomorrow.
Thatâs it. Of course, we can explore the meaning and implications of those 12 words. How does a strategy meet that requirement of connecting present knowledge to future actions? Why is this definition ideal for martech, and how can you use it?Â
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Everyone seems to agree that strategy involves setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them. If it were that simple though, human beings wouldnât have spent millennia debating the meaning and purpose of strategy.
Strategies address situations we canât fully control. They plan out how, in the face of uncertainty, a team will march towards its goal despite everything beckoning them to quit, pivot, sit down and cry, etc.
At the same time, a great strategy isnât passive. It doesnât wait for time to act upon it. Rather, it actively shapes events over time to produce a desirable future â what we often call a âwin.â
For a company that depends on digital marketing technology, knowing today how youâre going to win tomorrow is possible but extremely challenging for a few reasons.
We are notoriously bad at predicting what new technologies will emerge and disrupt our way of doing things. Everyone is attuned to the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain right now, which, to strategists, is a warning sign. What are we all missing? While everyoneâs focus converges on AI and blockchain, what innovations are the magicians doing out of sight?
If those tech magicians are likely to blindside us, then companies that confuse strategy with processes are especially vulnerable to disruption. A real strategy is tech-agnostic, meaning it leaves space to change platforms, integrate solutions, embrace new tools, and let go of outdated ones.
Only if we understand our existing processes and technologies deeply can we trust them in an ambiguous future. Strategically, we can evolve and repurpose our processes and tools for missions their inventors never imagined.
The third and most critical challenge of strategy involves people. In fables of strategy, one great leader â a Sun Tzu, Napoleon Bonaparte or Ulysses Grant â pulls all the strings. Rarely do the fables include mention of all the people around the leader who had to understand and execute various elements of the strategy.
For obvious reasons, military leaders couldnât reveal everything on their minds (spies, treason and more were real threats). For similar reasons, neither can modern C-level executives. But, I would argue that in information businesses, as compared to militaries, individuals have far more decision-making autonomy and therefore need to know and understand more of the strategy.
Every organization today wants to be âagile,â right? Explain to me how members of a team will make good decisions on the fly if they donât know and share a strategy.
To âknowâ the strategy is to understand how oneâs responsibilities fit into an overarching plan. To âshareâ the strategy is to work towards a collective purpose. Combined, those conditions produce camaraderie, engagement and a heightened desire to win â not just for oneself, but for those to whom we feel responsible.Â Â Â
Maybe the hardest question for a leader is this: How much of the strategy do you need to share? At what point is awareness of the strategy an advantage, and at what point does it become a liability?
I believe everyone on a martech team should be able to answer the five questions former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and advisor Roger Martin shared in their book “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.”
These questions arenât a definition of strategy. Rather, theyâre a framework for expressing and elaborating a strategy.
If everyone is aligned on one strategy â meaning theyÂ answer the five questions the same way â then the choices team members make around people, processes and technology should make sense to other teammates. A team with a strategy doesn’t waste time justifying each decision. Rather, people act with agility, and teammates understand what they did and why.Â
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Not every victory is the product of strategy. We can look at a leaderâs actions and say, âWow, what a strategy!â Often though, we donât know if the person acted intentionally. In retrospect, we might attribute success to plans that didnât exist â or to plans that person invented after the fact.
A definition and framework for strategy is your insurance against chance, which lives in the unknown tomorrow. If my teammates can answer Lafley and Martinâs questions in the present, I believe they will make winning decisions in difficult, unpredictable moments.
I like my definition of strategy because I can remember it, and it stands above any single framework or set of tactics. Maybe it will serve you too. Or, like everyone else who writes about strategy, maybe youâll dislike my definition and come up with a new one. Please share it when you do.
Michael Shattuck is a Software Implementation Consultant at Widen Enterprises, where he works with customers to develop meaningful DAM strategies and implement systems that enable brands to flourish. With a rich background that includes managing DAM and global photography for a major athletic brand, process improvement, and organizational strategy, Michael enjoys collaborating with customers to find creative solutions for their greatest challenges.