Strategy Requires Specificity

Posted: May 1, 2011 in Powerful Ideas
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Strategy always gains from specificity. It’s even more important to be specific when planning and conducting the implementation of the strategy. A key role of the strategic leader is to move from general assertions to specific expressions of intent and then on to the actual plan of implementation.

Consider the Normandy Landings in 1944. Eisenhower didn’t say “we will land somewhere in Europe and hope for the best.” He and his staff had to decide on a specific country for the landings, a specific timeframe, a specific region, and a specific set of beaches for the beachhead. He also assigned specific tasks to specific units at specific times and dates. They also had to achieve specific objectives within a specific timeframe. Eisenhower’s specific direction was then translated down through the chain of command in progressively smaller increments, all the while becoming more and more detailed and precise. Naturally, nothing went fully according to plan, but the fact that the Allies were able to pull off the landings and secure a beachhead are a testament to the ability of Eisenhower and his staff to create specific goals and give specific direction to specific people.

Too often, I find that business owners and senior executives confuse being specific with micro-management or being overly detailed. They don’t want to be accused of breathing down their subordinates’ necks. It’s a valid concern, but is unwarranted if the strategy and direction are too vague or general to be actionable in any meaningful sense.

Too often we see mission statements like “To be the number one provider of X.” What is number one? How do you define it? The mission should be specific about what makes your company or organization different. A mission statement is often the best way to encapsulate and convey the true value and positioning of a company. Take Google’s mission statement: “Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s specific about the value the company provides, and its key competitive advantages, without however providing the detail of how it does so, as that will tend to change fast in any case.

Another weakness of many strategies and strategic plans is that they list a set of objectives without necessarily specifying how they will be achieved. I’ve often heard that strategy is about the what, not the how, but I think that is wrong. To have a valid strategy, you have to be specific about how you will differentiate your services and products from others, your competitive advantages, what customers will find unique about you, and how you will go about this in broad terms. You also have to be specific about the priorities in your objectives and the resources you will put behind their achievement. Finally, you have to specify the major competencies and capabilities that are required to achieve the strategy, otherwise you may end up with a brilliant strategy but no way to implement it. In other words, strategy requires specificity; it’s just that it is a different kind of specificity than at the operational and tactical levels of implementation.

The hardest thing to do is to go from strategy and strategic objectives to an actual plan of implementation. In my experience, there are three essential requirements for successful implementation. First, you need to identify specifically what you are going to do to achieve the required strategic outcome. For instance, if you decide to expand your services out West, you need to identify a first location, and then create an operational plan to implement that particular element of the strategy.

The second essential ingredient for successful implementation is to set supporting goals and a timeframe. Goals can be outcome based: e.g. increase sales by 10% within a year. But they can also be input oriented: identify and preselect three new locations by 1 June and then decide on the actual location for expansion by 1 July. As you’ll note, these are specific objectives, equivalent to how the Normandy Landings were planned: first, what country, then what region, then what specific locations, and by when.

The final element to successful strategic implementation is to assign the achievement of the objective to a specific person. In other words, someone has to be in charge, if not hierarchically or legally, then at least as a leader and champion to see the project through to fruition. I’ve always been a big fan of assigning responsibilities for action and outcomes to specific people. Instead of vague assertions of intent, you get a focused approach to action. The harder the job, the better the person has to be.

In summary, strategy and strategic plans must be be sufficiently specific to encapsulate the organization’s key differentiators, competitive advantages, and positioning. Also, you can be specific without being detailed. You can leave the details to those who must implement the various elements of the strategy, to those who are responsible for achieving its objectives.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted for non-commercial purposes with full and proper attribution.

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