Creating a strategy

My friend Carey’s business had stalled. Since I’m one of those people who loves to offer unasked-for advice (knowing the recipient will be eternally grateful), I offered some. “You need an overarching strategy,” I intoned, sagely. The unfathomable response, “Thanks, but no thanks. I already have lots of strategies.”

Lots of strategies? Hmm. You can’t have multiple overarching strategies at once. But Carey wouldn’t know that, because we’re never taught what a strategy is, or how to make sure you have a good one.

Do you have a strategy? For business? For life? Do you even need one? What is one?

Strategies Aren’t Tactics

People use “strategy” to mean a to-do item, but that’s not a strategy. That’s a tactic. Carey has 16 different products under development at once. Those aren’t 16 strategies; they’re 16 tactics.

A strategy is a directed plan you use to commit your time and action in a single direction. By aligning how you spend your time, your money, your resources, and your communication, you greatly increase your chances for success.

If Carey’s projects include designing a high-fashion clothing line for the Milan runway and opening a Veterinary Pet Grooming franchise, those will compete for time, attention, and dollars. When the clothing line needs another 5-gallon tub of sequins (I never said Carey had taste), that’s money that could have been spent on tick sponge-on. Neither business gets the full resources needed to insure success.

Set a Vision that Drives Your Work

Before you can create your strategy, you need to know where you want to end up. What’s the result the strategy is designed to produce? That’s the vision that drives your work.

Start your strategy by setting a compelling, substantive vision. A vision needs to be specific enough to use to make decisions. It needs to be general enough to allow flexibility in what you choose to do.

My friend Rowan’s vision is “to build a business.” That’s so vague that it could cover everything from fashion design to tick removal… and so it does.

But make it more specific, and it becomes a powerful guide. In an alternate universe where Rowan is capable of focus, the vision could become:

A business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy 365 days a year[1].

This vision can be used to decide which product lines to enter, and to allow a range of options: tick treatment and nutritional consultation both fit. It can also be used to decide which product lines notto enter: high fashion that features too many sequins[2]. It’s just specific enough to guide a good strategy.

Create a Strategy Linking Your Goal to Your Reality

Now you have a vision. But while visions are great, they’re still too abstract for action. If a new Puppies R Us (We Sell ‘Em, You Care For ‘Em™) opened down the street from Rowan’s storefront, concentrating the business on dog care could be Rowan’s ticket to mansions and private planes. But if the new store is Spiders Galore: Unusual Pets for Unusual People, concentrating on the care and grooming of Brachypelma emilia might make the most sense.

Begin crafting your strategy by linking the vision to your current reality. Assess your resources — what you have a lot of, and what you’re short on. Assess your situation — outside forces that might help or hinder different courses of action. Create a high-level plan that uses your resources to move towards some way to realize your vision, given your current environment.

Rowan can take the pet health business vision, and link it to the things in real life that will make it happen.

Point tactics towards a vision to get the job done right. Then link it to reality.

If Rowan has home office space, an email list of pet owners, and a vast network of veterinarians, Rowan’s strategy could be to form an online pet care referral network. There could be an app, and a website, and a huge campaign to sign up hundreds of veterinarians from around the world.

If Rowan has a retail storefront near Puppies R Us, but no mailing list, the strategy could be to create in-person care for dogs and dog-related issues. Rowan could even propose a collaboration with Puppies R Us where Puppies promotes Rowan’s business and gets a referral fee.

These are two different strategies. Both lead towards the vision of “a business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy year-round.”

Being in possession of the retail storefront, Rowan chooses the strategy of providing in-person dog-related care.

Keep Your Strategy Clear

Lastly, keep your chosen strategy clear and singular. You might have many tactics that comprise the strategy. Rowan can get the word out in many different ways: online banner ads, leaflets in the local community, and a Puppies R Us partnership. These are pretty different activities, but make no mistake: these aren’t strategies, they’re separate tactics supporting a single strategy.

By having only this one strategy, Rowan can now concentrate all resources on the storefront. If the opportunity comes up to run a nationwide banner ad, the explicit strategy tells Rowan what to do: say “no” to the ad; advertising a Springfield puppy health service in Skokie makes no sense.

Think Strategically Throughout Your Life

A strategy helps you make decisions about where to put your time, money, and attention. We’ve been exploring strategy in business, but you can apply strategic thinking to other areas of your life.

What is your vision for your life? For your family? Your Career? Spend some time forming your vision. Then look at today’s reality, and choose a strategy that will realize that vision as possible in your life today. You’ll get a lot more of what you want in life, and a lot less of whatever random the world throws at you. Then you can put your efforts into tactics that support your strategy.

A scattershot approach to success is a recipe for staying stuck. Avoid this by organizing your tactics and resources using a well-chosen strategy. Align it all in pursuit of the vision that inspires and energizes you, and you’ll soon be enjoying plenty of success, while still having time to stop and pet the puppies.


  1. Closed on February 29th.  ↩
  2. Lack of fit with the vision is only one reason not to enter that particular business.  ↩

More than one strategy is actually… no strat…

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