Strategy (3): Strategy is about the big picture (relatively)

This is the third post in a series – start here.

Definition of Strategy (as a skill or activity):

Strategy is the dynamic process of making big-picture plans (strategies) with the intention of increasing the chances or speed at which you’ll achieve your major goals.

Which picture?

Strategy is commonly defined as a “big picture” activity: “a general plan to achieve one or more long-term goals under conditions of uncertainty.” It’s the “art of a general” (Greek: strategos) as opposed to a soldier of lower rank.

This definition works well, as long as we understand that long-term or higher-level goals are always relative. To continue with military examples, the objective of defeating an enemy army appears as to be a top-level strategic goal – until it’s seen in the context of (say), winning a world war, or securing a lasting peace settlement. Most of our goals are layers in an onion: subordinate to larger ends, and dependent on smaller sub-goals in turn.

Layered Objectives

Here’s an example of a set of layered objectives (see my series on Nested Problems) from a non-profit organisation (I’ve given each level a number to avoid having to think of a label for each one):

Level 1: Work for Human Flourishing

Level 2: Help the movement towards a well-educated population

Level 3: Focus on improving literacy (in a particular county?)

Level 4: Train and resource early-years teachers of literacy

Level 5: Find partners; recruit board; write strategic plan; build management structure

Level 6: Develop literacy resources and training package; assemble a training team; secure funding

Level 7: Write internal training materials, develop financial structure and PR materials

Level 8: Recruit finance manger; hone communication skills

Level 9: Write petty cash policy; establish cleaning rota

Level 10: Plan weekly team meeting; work on new blog post

It’s all relative

These examples aren’t meant to be a tightly woven plan – the point is that with the possible exception of the highest goal (“human flourishing”) and the lowest, whether or not these goals are “big-picture” depends on where you’re standing.

It’s commonly stated that values and organisational vision and values should drive strategy – and they should – but we need to recognise that these top-level objectives are actually strategic decisions in themselves: they set direction and priorities and rule out certain possibilities in the name of achieving an even higher-level goal.

Often – especially as members of large organisations – our scope of decision-making is usually constrained and often defined for us, but we usually have influence on a “big picture” a level or two upwards that can help us achieve our immediate goals more easily. Even an apparently low-level (‘tactical’) goal of “keep the office clean” benefits from strategic goals like “research the most effective tools and techniques for cleaning,” and “find ways of encouraging staff to be tidier.”

Where we lack authority for higher-level strategy, there’s always the possibility of stepping sidewise outside the organisation in order to generate new possibilities or control over higher order goals. An example of this might be finding a new job, or undertaking further study, or influencing others through writing or networking. (This kind of guerilla-warfare outside the frame of strategy is can bring outsized rewards and is worthy of attention).

Summing up

Strategic activity is always relative. The best way to do strategy is to work out the highest level over which we have influence and to make our plans from there. Where our scope for influence over strategy is limited we can look for a strategy that finds its way around obstacles to achieve greater levels of influence.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...