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.

Slow down

I wrote this one primarily for myself, though I believe it’s good advice for anyone who’s ever found themselves in a leadership role in today’s work environment. Here it is: slow down.

I am not talking about taking some time off, going on a digital vacation, or just relaxing a bit in the evening and doing some light reading. Those things are great and important parts of our lives all in themselves. When I say “slow down,” I mean slowing down at work: to remain surrounded by work, but take time to reflect on what’s happening. When I was developing my self-work routine, I had this metaphor of a riverbank that might be useful here. Slowing down means stepping out of the turbulent river of our daily work and sitting on the riverbank for a little bit. Pause. Look around. Are we still going where we want to go? Or are we being carried by the river?

Think of it this way: we’ve learned to go fast, we’ve honed our effectiveness, ways to put the pedal to the metal. Today, our problem is not that we are lazy. It’s that our undercurrent of achieving is too strong. Through this lens, procrastination can be a shaming word for having patience to let the solution reveal itself. And when we start getting worried that we’re not achieving fast enough, we get further trapped in the churn of the river. 

In Adult Development Theory, there’s this notion of fallback. A metaphor for it that I really like is that our minds are houses with rooms, where some rooms become inaccessible during fallback. It’s like we know our house has them, but we just can’t find our way to them. So while in fallback, if we want to go to the Strategy room and do some long-term thinking, we keep finding ourselves in the Tactics room, covered in glitter and glue of the short-term fixes. There are many causes of fallback, and in my experience, the achiever stress is not an uncommon one.

As we fall back, our perspective narrows. We can no longer see options and opportunities that are locked away in those now-inaccessible rooms, and it feels right and natural to just keep doing what we’re doing. A deadline is coming up, so of course we need to jump on that. Our colleague needs to meet, so yes, we’ll find the time. And as we just keep on swimming, we find our schedules getting busier and pace continuing to rise. We keep going faster and faster. In the moment when we need to open some space to think, taking an even little pause feels like the wrong thing to do: who’s going to do all this work?

Those of you who work with me know that I have my late Friday afternoon blocked off for reflection. I have three questions that I pose for myself. They are loosely: 1) what did I do this week? 2) am I losing sight of the big picture? and 3) what might I change in how I conduct my next week? This is my time to slow down. No matter how high the fires are, and how urgent the pings to meet, I try to spend this time sitting on the riverbank. Sometimes it doesn’t work, though over time, I am realizing that the trick is to keep trying. Keep trying to slow down.