A strategy and a plan

A colleague asked me this great question: “What’s the difference between a strategy and a plan?” Put very simply, a plan is one way to communicate a strategy. But you know me, I want to get at the subtlety of what this implies.

First up, semantics. I found that when people say “strategy,” they usually mean one of two distinct things. One is the business strategy, which is a whole discipline about the means to obtain durable differentiating business outcomes. This field is well staked-out and I don’t want to trespass there. The other one has a more generic meaning, as in strategy games or strategic thinking, which is usually associated with seeking some long-term outcomes through a series of short-term actions. That’s the one I want to play with.

Applying this definition, most of us operate with some sort of strategy in mind. Unlike that forgetful fish from Finding Nemo, we wish for what we did today to contribute to some longer-term objective. When we believe that it didn’t, we feel like we wasted our time. When we believe that it did, we feel more content: things are going our way.

Working as a group, our good fortune depends (among other things) on how well our actions align toward a common goal. This alignment is an emergent phenomenon: if we end up pulling all different directions, we might be trying really hard, yet make no progress toward the goal. Conversely, we race toward it when we’re aligned. A team leader’s key challenge is making sure that a) there is a high degree of alignment and b) the team’s common goal matches the desired outcomes the leader has in mind. 

Somehow, the leader needs to ensure that when team members act in the short term, their actions add up to positive momentum toward where the team is asked to go. Somehow, they need to communicate their strategy: transfer the necessary parts of their strategy from their minds to the minds of the team members.

Plans are an ancient and probably simplest method to do this. Outline all the steps that the team needs to take to get to their objective and communicate them in a resonant way — usually many times over — until everyone on the team knows what they are. Plans are amazing, because all we need to do is follow the steps and if we do, we know we’re going in the right direction. They are exceedingly effective in environments where the validity of the strategy can be easily verified. For example, if I walked through a maze and wrote down all the turns, you can follow my plan and know for certain whether it works. From there, a previously treacherous puzzle becomes a slightly annoying routine for everyone who follows the plan. In such a setting, the plan is the strategy.

In more fluid environments, plans tend to rapidly lose their effectiveness. When we don’t know if the maze stayed the same since the last time we traversed it, communicating strategy needs to mature beyond plans. The leader has to transfer not just a particular solution to a particular maze, but the means to solve any maze in a consistent and safe way. To meet their challenge of alignment, they need the team to continue making progress toward the long-term outcome when the circumstances change: collectively inching toward the exit even if the walls in the maze shift and mutate.

So, when we’re looking at a strategy artifact, here are some questions to reflect on. If it looks like a plan, are we operating in a stable, predictable environment? Can we quickly validate that this is the right plan? If so, we’re probably set — let’s go. Otherwise, we are better off stepping back and investing a bit more time into considering how might we share our mental model of the environment with the team to empower them to create and change their plans on the fly in a way that’s still compatible with our strategy.

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