Strategy. It’s treated with a reverence usually reserved for sacred relics or the last slice of pizza.
I love reading corporate strategy because I’m a big fan of fiction. Typically, it’s a phrasebook of jargon that could make a dictionary weep. It says nothing, offends no one, has no clear actions, and makes no hard decisions. It’s all “blue sky” vision. Rarely are challenges mentioned or any insight provided. It’s all mission, values, and lots of vague goals.
And when we talk about “life strategy”, it gets even worse: most people have no strategy at all. It’s like toddlers playing soccer; it’s cute, but nobody knows what they’re doing. They’re just running around, occasionally bumping into each other, and every now and then, by sheer chance, they kick the ball in the right direction.
Strategy is powerful but this isn’t strategy; it’s a strategy Halloween costume.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or vying for that big promotion, we can effectively apply business strategy to our personal lives. And you don’t even have to do a SWOT analysis.
How do we learn the best way to do it? We’re gonna get insight from UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Richard Rumelt. His excellent book is “Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters.”
Ready to be strategic? Let’s get to it…
Everybody thinks they have a good strategy. They came up with an acronym. Even had it laminated.
But the true first step is knowing what bad strategy looks like so we aren’t misleading ourselves. You can identify bad strategies by whether they include any of these four signs:
Fluff is superficial restatement of the obvious combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords. We’ve all heard it. “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” What does that even mean? It sounds like advice from a fortune cookie that’s having an existential crisis. In our personal lives, it’s grand, vague statements like “I’m going to live my best life!”
2-Failure To Face The Challenge
Bad strategy doesn’t directly address the problems you’re dealing with. Richard says, “If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.”
We tend to say things like “Persistence is everything.” But if you’re trying to get from NY to London and you’re headed north, more persistence isn’t going to help much.
3-Mistaking Goals For Strategy
Bad strategy is big on goals but short on a specific approach to achieving them. “Trying harder” is not a strategy. This is like trying to bake a cake by just staring at an oven and hoping for the best.
4-Bad Strategic Objectives
Strategic objectives are bad when they fail to address critical issues or when you have no way to put them into practice. You need to know where you want to be but also how you want to get there. Otherwise, you might as well be trying to turn lead into gold. And let’s be honest, the last time someone tried that, they ended up with a pile of worthless metal and mercury poisoning.
So what is strategy?
Goliath is like Mike Tyson in his prime and he even has armor and a javelin. David is a boy with a sling. But David notices Goliath’s armor doesn’t cover his face. The kid slings a rock right into Goliath’s forehead and it’s over in round one. All the bookies in the Valley of Elah were stunned.
Richard says, “Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.”
You don’t decide on a strategy because the options are not always obvious. You design a strategy. And that’s accomplished by identifying high value opportunities and then coming up with a specific way to leverage your strengths to accomplish them. This is every leader’s primary responsibility and, in your life, you’re the leader. Like it or not.
Good strategies are simple and straightforward. “His face is unprotected. I have a sling. I’m gonna hit him in the forehead with a rock.” And if strategies are not that simple, beware. More PowerPoint slides or more “manifesting” don’t make a bad strategy better.
So how do we design our strategy? Richard says it comes down to the strategy’s “kernel.” That has three parts: diagnosis, guiding policy, and coherent action.
You’ve got it all mapped out – career, family, retirement – but you’ve failed to identify key obstacles. You know, like reality. Many seem to think strategy is akin to thinking happy thoughts and waiting for success to rain down like confetti. But, no, strategy is not just listening to your overly optimistic aunt who shares inspirational quotes on Facebook.
You need to think about obstacles. The stuff that’s causing you problems. No, it’s not fun. It means facing uncomfortable truths. This can feel like you’re that character in a horror movie who decides to investigate the creepy noise in the basement.
What problems are you having? What is getting in the way of you getting what you want?
You need to think about the challenges and any competition you might face – not just your goals. Goals that don’t consider obstacles are just dreams. What is stopping you from accomplishing those goals and how will you deal with them?
When doing your diagnosis, you want to take the messy complexity of reality and reduce it to a simpler story that focuses on the critical aspects. This allows you to compare it to analogous situations where good responses may be more obvious.
So you’ve done your diagnosis. What’s next?
A good guiding policy tackles obstacles identified in the diagnosis by finding leverage points, sources of advantage. But it doesn’t specify action just yet. Where should you focus your energy to create a winning solution to overcoming the obstacle?
Obstacle: Goliath, who looks like someone bred a WWE wrestler with a silverback gorilla.
Guiding Policy: His armor doesn’t protect his face… Hmmm.
Coming up with a good guiding policy requires honesty, insight, and the ability to see the forest for the trees, not just complaining about the type of trees and the lack of cellphone reception in the forest. A good guiding policy is focused and simple.
Now “focused and simple” sounds good but this is often where the problems come from. Strategy is about what you do but it’s even more about what you don’t do.
“Focused and simple” means tough choices. You can’t do everything and if you try, that’s fewer resources you’ll have to deal with what’s important. Too many priorities = no priorities. David didn’t start slinging rocks all over the place.
And tough choices often mean irritating people. A good strategy is not about making everyone happy. That’s the job of a clown at a children’s party, not a strategist. In corporate life, universal buy-in usually means you didn’t make the tough choice because shifting focus almost always means giving power or resources to one group over another. And in personal strategy, it means devoting less time, energy and money to one area of your life and more to another. Everyone is not going to be happy and that’s why we don’t make tough choices and that’s often why strategies fail.
Okay, your guiding policy is clear and so beautiful it could bring a tear to a glass eye. The strategist in you deploys your mental ad blocker and you focus. Now it’s time to act…
Some people merely call their guiding policy a strategy and pretty much stop there. Believe it or not, you actually need to do things and carry that policy out. It’s the difference between saying you’re going to learn Spanish and actually downloading Duolingo – and then, unlike most of us, actually using it.
So set a “proximate objective.” Yes, that sounds like it was invented by a group of monks who’ve taken a vow of practicality. What it means is a very specific action to follow through on your guiding policy, clear the obstacle and make progress. Make it a crystal clear target that you can reasonably achieve. This not only makes sense in the abstract but it’s powerful emotionally – you can see what you’re trying to do and it feels do-able. That’ll motivate you.
Proximate Objective: Rock, meet forehead.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn the dead simple way to get yourself ready to conquer your goals…
This is how to be strategic and achieve your goals:
So how do you get started? You need to know what you want to achieve. This can be a problem for a lot of people. But it’s not that hard – in fact, it’s quite easy. Quick story:
It’s 1890 and multi-millionaire Andrew Carnegie is holding court at a cocktail party. People are hanging on his every word. Frederick Taylor approaches. He was famous as an expert on helping people organize their work.
Carnegie looked at him and said, “Young man, if you can tell me something about management that is worth hearing, I will send you a check for ten thousand dollars.” Ten grand then was about $300,000 today. It was probably more of a status challenge than a real offer. Everyone turned to look at Taylor…
“Mr. Carnegie,” Taylor said, “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.”
A week later, Taylor received a check for ten grand.
Sounds ridiculous, right? This is the most basic advice in the world. Every corny self-help book recommends this. Why in the world would Carnegie – an amazing businessman by any measure — see this as valuable?
The list wasn’t that valuable. But actually making the list was incredibly valuable. We talked about the importance of tough choices. And making a list forces you to decide what’s important and what’s possible. Taylor’s list got Carnegie to reflect on what mattered most to him – and to consider ways of getting there.
Business fads come and go. Self-help tricks come and go. We love shiny new things. But what’s important is making choices that don’t make future-you want to time travel back and slap some sense into present-you.
So make a list. Consider what’s important to you. Think about the obstacles. Discover where the obstacles are weak and where you are strong to create points of leverage. And then…
Rock, meet forehead.