What is Strategy?

I was trying to explain my job to an Uber driver last week.

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m in strategy for a digital agency.”

“Oh, so what do you do?”

“Uhmmm, lots of stuff…”

This question has come up from friends, family, sometimes co-workers, and it’s led me to think about my role. If it’s different than the “strategy” that exists in everyone’s title everywhere. And what “strategy” really even means.

My favorite answer comes from Michael Porter at HBS who wrote the seminal article “What is Strategy?” in 1996. This outlines strategy as it relates to the competitive positioning of a firm. The essence of the argument is that advantage is to be found by choosing to be different—serving different customer segments with different offerings supported by different company activities/competencies. This is commonly illustrated in a Southwest Airlines example: choosing to serve different customers through different hubs with a different model of employee engagement.

I think Porter is absolutely right, and we can take the notion of strategy up one level using a quote of his: “The essence of strategy is choice.”  I believe this is the core. Said slightly differently, the essence of strategy is focus. What do you want to accomplish? Where should you focus your time, energy and resources to reach your goal?

The word strategy is misused more often than not, but in the end, your strategy should be your guide to making the right choices to help you achieve your goals. There are always competing goals, competing opportunities/problems and competing potential actions for a firm (or even an individual).  Applying a strategic lens is applying focus:

Goals – What do you want to accomplish? Why? Are they competing goals? Are there too many goals? What are the most important goals?
Problems/opportunities – What are the most important things that need to happen in order for you to accomplish your goals? What are the problems that need to be solved?
Tactics – What can you pursue that will have the greatest impact? How many? At what scale?
When someone says, "We need a strategy," they need direction, prioritization and longer-term guidance. When you hear, “This needs to be more strategic,” typically the proposed tactics need to be shown to be the most likely to make progress against the greatest opportunities that will have the greatest impact on the established goals.  

Very practically, my job is to work with our teams to help our clients understand their specific landscape (company goals, customer goals, competitor impact, market and macro forces). Align on goals. Organize and prioritize the key challenges/opportunities. Then finally, approach the swirling mass of ever-changing digital options clear-eyed about what we need.

Or, as eloquently put by my good designer friend, “You write the first part of the deck.”

So that’s strategy. Bringing focus and prioritization to goals, opportunities and tactics—or more simply, “Write the first part of the deck.”