Understanding strategy

As a student, I was part of one of the university’s sports teams. To be precise, I played defence for the second women’s lacrosse team. We were fortunate enough to have what you might consider the holy grail, as far as our players were concerned: the team was dedicated, positive, hardworking — with a high level of skill, coordination, and fitness. We all trained hard, supported each other, and generally got on very well. Hell — some of the friends I made there are even coming to my wedding, so clearly something went right.

What we had is an example of a great working culture. With very little outside coaching or formal structure (we were the second team after all) we did our best at every opportunity.

Yet more often than not our best wasn’t good enough. You would have thought that with a team like that, it should have been, but no.

Here’s the kicker — taking into account ability, skill and fielded players, we lost around a third more matches than we should have.

Why? It’s simple. We had zero strategy. We had a clear goal (to win) but as with a lot of amateur teams at this level, at no point did we sit down and discuss exactly how we envisioned we were going to achieve this. We had tactical pieces — set plays and the like — which enabled us to gain opportunities at key moments, but there was nothing to string together each player’s decision making in a coordinated fashion.

We had zero strategy. We had a clear goal (to win) but as with a lot of amateur teams at this level, at no point did we sit down and discuss exactly how we envisioned we were going to achieve this.

There is an oft-quoted phrase from Peter Drucker that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and while I absolutely believe in the power of culture (and recommend Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code for anyone looking for some thoughtful writing on the subject), I also believe in a balanced diet. One cannot achieve without the other.

So, what really is strategy? How is it different from your objectives?

I take much of my core understanding of strategy from Alistair Campbell’s Winners. Campbell starts by stressing the importance of understanding first the difference between a goal or objective and strategy. Simply put, an objective is what you wish to achieve. Clarity and precision are key.

For example, my lacrosse team’s objective was to win our matches. But if we wished to track more specific progress, our objective for the next season might be to win or draw 70% of our games. Your objective depends on your motivation.

In very different situation, my objective when packing for a holiday is to have everything I would want or need with me on holiday. Whereas you, reader, may be more concerned about packing as quickly as possible. Someone else, travelling short-haul with hand luggage say, needs it all to fit in a smaller bag.

It depends on your motivation.

Strategy is the how: how we win, how you pack, how a company becomes market leader by 2020.

Take my lacrosse team; we wanted to win as many games as possible. By coordinating our efforts in the how we could have been much more successful.

Possible strategies include ‘full defence’ where tactics would include doubling up on our defensive efforts, attacking players leaving their positions to support the defensive players, other players hanging behind in order to be ready if there was a break by the opposition.

An alternative could be ‘prioritise possession’ (a part — I suspect — of England’s strategy in the recent Football World Cup) where you look to keep possession in order to control the game, even if it means taking less risk and retreating from uncertain attacks.

Two very different approaches to a single objective.

Campbell, in Winners, highlights famous strategies that propelled teams, companies, and political parties to success: from Clive Woodward’s ‘Excellence’ strategy for the England Rugby team which took them to World Cup victory in 2003, to Steve Job’s ‘Simplification’ approach at Apple, and finally to Campbell’s own work in politics.

But how does this translate for a business?

Say you are in charge of strategy at MegaCorp. The board has made it clear that they wish MegaCorp to enter a new geographical market (say Europe) successfully over a 2-year period. So, we have our goal. But how are you going to achieve it?

Here it’s not so easy to use snappy phrases to illustrate your strategy but it doesn’t mean you don’t have one.

First is understanding possible different approaches:

Will you plan for MegaCorp to enter Europe by establishing it in each country one-by-one, for example only launching in Germany when the business is established completely in France?

Or does it make more sense to start concurrently across capital cities in different countries and then grow out to the regions in each?

It’s the decision you need to make depending on what you do or do not know about your company, resources, market, and customers.

An example of one such strategy was in 2011, when The Kooples, an international clothing brand, launched 8 points of sales (e.g. stores, concessions) simultaneously in Britain. The gamble paid off and they immediately became an established brand on the UK high street.

What does this make tactics?

If strategy is your decision making approach then tactics are the choices and activities that underpin it. For me, there are two types of tactics (and here I diverge from Campbell’s view):

  • The first is what I think of as a convergent tactic– it’s a planned activity that is in line with your wider strategic direction and objective.

For example, in my lacrosse team, we would practise taking penalties — which, if we had had a strategy, could have supported this. In MegaCorp, it might be that you use the same highly-skilled team of specialists to set up each new office or hub as part of your expansion.

  • The second is what I think of as a divergent tacticthis is an activity that is not in line with your strategy but is with your objective. Most commonly it’s when you take of an opportunity that offers short-term advantage.

For the case of MegaCorp, it might be that a city you planned to launch in during Phase 3 offer a tax-break for you if you launch there in Phase 2, as they want to bring more jobs to the area.

A tactical decision would be to — in this instance — take advantage of this one-off opportunity and expand into that city earlier. It contributes to the same objective of a successful launch in Europe but diverges away from the main plan.

The power of applying a strategy should never be underestimated. In Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath, he recounts the story of how in a basketball league for young girls, one team began to win, and win, and win.

The girls in this team were not tall and, in fact, many had never played basketball before. On paper, they were not set for success. Their coach, Vivek Ranadive, (who happens to also be an incredibly successful businessman- although lacked much basketball experience at this point) recognised this and realised to be successful their strategy would need to make use of their effort and enthusiasm — rather than sheer skill.

Taking a fresh view at the idiosyncrasies of basketball, he decided that their strategy would be to play full court press. The entire game.

As Ranadive says himself “By taking the unconventional approach, we were able to catch our opponents off-guard, which gave us the advantage. And we won, a lot.” To make it work, they had to be fitter, faster, and work harder than their skilled opponents.

At an age where we often assume raw talent (or size) will triumph — this strategy allowed the team to win and progress beyond expectations. It was not the sole factor: Ranadive speaks around creating the culture, applying tactics via set-plays, and the importance of the support the team received. However, as we saw earlier, you can have all of that in a sports team and still not get there.

If only my lacrosse team had known this then.

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