In our first blog of this series, we highlighted that strategic thinking is a skill and one that can be improved and developed.

So, what is strategy? What does it mean?

The word “strategy” comes from the ancient Greek word strategos meaning “general or leader of the army”, being a union of the words stratos “army” and agein “to lead”.

From the Oxford Dictionary, a modern definition is “a plan designed to achieve a long-term aim.” Synonyms of strategy include “plan; grand design; game plan; policy; scheme.”

Learnings on strategy, strategic thinking, and strategic decision making are ubiquitous. A plethora of academics and theorists have conjured their own meanings and applications of the term, making the search for a universally accepted definition illusory.

The military context provides many perspectives perhaps best described in Robert Greene’s classic book, The 33 Strategies of War, distilling learnings from Sun Tzu (孫子) and Niccolò Machiavelli to modern-day references.

In business schools, you’ll likely learn about: Michael Porter and his “5 forces framework”; Henry Mintzberg and his “5Ps of strategy” – plan, ploy, pattern, position and perspective; Benjamin Tregoe and John Zimmerman and their view that strategy is “the framework which guides those choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization”; Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema and their “three value disciplines”; Igor Ansoff’s “Ansoff Matrix” – a two-by-two depiction of how a business can grow; and Kenneth Andrew’s view of corporate strategy as “the pattern of decisions in a company that determines and reveals its objectives, purposes, or goals, produces the principal policies and plans for achieving those goals, and defines the range of business the company is to pursue, the kind of economic and human organization it is or intends to be, and the nature of the economic and non-economic contribution it intends to make to its shareholders, employees, customers, and communities.”

Then there’s Frank Rothaermel, who, according to one study, is amongst the world’s top 2% most cited researchers, formulating “good strategy” for a company as involving a:

  1. diagnosis of the competitive challenge – accomplished through analysis of external/internal firm environment;
  2. guiding policy to address the competitive challenge – accomplished through strategy formulation; and
  3. set of coherent actions to implement the firm’s guiding policy – accomplished through strategy implementation.

Clearly, there is no one meaning or application of the word. That said, there are some core elements that can provide a useful framework.

In the workplace context, we consider there to be two common strategic processes.

The first is around developing an ideal future state. What resourcing is needed to deliver on our five year plan? How should our HR function be structured? What should our next enterprise agreement look like, and do we need one? These issues, we would argue, are genuinely strategic.

The second is grappling with key decisions of a more narrow compass. Perhaps not strategic as such, but their importance calls for strategic thinking. Do we terminate the employment? Do we engage contract labour here? Do we now allow working from home, and if so, how regularly?

Both processes rely on getting the correct information to the table and, often, difficult choices to be made, which call for an assessment of the balance of consequences which might follow.

For either process, a similar strategy framework can be readily applied. It is summarised in our Seyfarth Strategy Framework (below) based on the “rational decision making” model.

Seyfarth Strategy Framework
Click to enlarge

The framework:

  1. is not intended to be applied rigidly. Rather, it serves as a guide; and
  2. prompts a first layer of analysis only. For instance, a risk matrix might be needed to identify and better examine the risks. A RACI matrix might be developed as part of the “implementation”. A nine-box SWOT (as opposed to a simple four box) might be developed to populate the “plan”.

As mentioned in Part 1 of our series, “inquiry” is key to sound strategic thinking. The Seyfarth Strategy Framework poses high-level questions. Asking the right sub-questions having regard to specific context ought to precede the irresistible urge to proffer a solution.

Cell four of the framework, the “inputs”, is the key fact-finding part. Here, it is necessary to identify the information needed. Let’s use the example of deciding whether we should allow work from home. Anecdotal feedback from one manager about their views on what the team are thinking, or feeling, might be useful, but is it reliable enough to make the decision you are about to make? What more might be needed here before steps are taken?

Finally, decisions cannot be sensibly made in a vacuum. Hence the need for criteria or guiding principles. A debate about a course of action can often be resolved by asking, “what are our priorities here?” To take our work from home scenario again, are we aiming to justify our lease expense? Do we care to balance the interests of those who want flexibility with those who don’t?

In Part 3, we will turn our attention to “risk”. More than ever, risk is a feature of workplace thinking and hence a key variable impacting strategy.