Strategy Statements - Avoid Getting Wrapped Around the Axle

Just about every company goes through a process of creating their vision, mission, and strategy statements. Start-ups especially must do this to attract investment or document their latest pivot. Sometimes the companies hire consultants. Sometimes they arrange a one- or two-day offsite meeting with senior management. Sometimes the CEO hands the strategy down to management.

Most of the time though companies end up with a big PowerPoint deck that contains many $100 buzzwords, describes their role in tectonic industry trends, but fails to come to a point. The leaders celebrate the completion of the document; they present it to management and staff; and everyone continues doing what they were already doing before the exercise.

Keep in mind that planning is important despite these misadventures. Dwight D. Eisenhower said: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." So by all means plan.

Here are my top seven guidelines for writing effective planning documents.

  1. Write a Strategic Intent Instead. Avoid the pointless discussions about what elements fit in the vision, objectives, goals, mission, values, or strategy documents. Write a single document that includes them all -- from where the company wants to go to how it plans to get there. Call it a Strategic Intent document.
  2. Keep it Short. Several good blog posts on the topic, including Forget the Strategy PowerPoint and The Art of Crafting a 15-Word Strategy Statement make a strong case for fitting the planning document on one piece of paper. That forces clarity and conciseness. And it is easier for the staff to understand.
  3. Make Choices. The reader should understand what the company will and will not do. Be specific about the success measures, target markets, time frames, technology platforms, make-versus-buy-versus-partner choices, and go-to-market channels.
  4. Solve Problems for Target Customers. The best strategies meet market needs, rather than describe actions in a vacuum. Meeting a market need requires specifying a target customer, a use case, some need or pain point, and how the company plans to meet the need. Otherwise, what makes the company unique?
  5. Specify Action. Passive voice kills strategy statements. Something important just magically happens? Good strategies describe clear action programs. 
  6. Leave the Tag Lines for Don Draper. Having an "elevator pitch" is helpful, especially if it ties in consistently and logically with the whole strategy. But a strategy is not the place to create the catchy, 2- to 3-word catch phrase. That is for the ad agency or the marketing types, once everyone agrees on the overall strategy.
  7. Plan for Phases. Just as Generals say "no battle plan survives the first shot being fired", strategists say "strategy ends when the team takes the first action, and the rest is tactics". Strategies should contain big dreams as well as near-term plans. Think big and act small. No one can predict the market or competitive conditions for phase 3, so there is no need to be highly specific about the strategy for that phase.