Strategy Answers “How” to Get “What” by “When”

“How” is a deceptively difficult word. It’s easy to do something if you know how, but if you don’t have the skills, experience or data to do something, then how becomes a whole lot harder.

Tying your shoes, for example, is a mindless exercise, unless you don’t know how. And then it seems like magic to see someone so effortlessly wrap two laces around each other to create a tidy bow.

If you google it, you will find thousands of tutorials.

What makes strategy — and more specifically, strategic planning — so difficult is answering the how.

A Goal Without a Plan Is Not a Strategy

Often, companies are pretty good at defining what they want.

At a workshop — way back before covid when we met in person — I asked a group of CEOs to take five minutes to draw an illustration of their business strategy. The challenge was to create an easy-to-share model or flowchart to explain their business strategy on one page.

The strategies the group of CEOs created divided into three predictable buckets: goals, actions, and priorities.

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Part of the group talked about their business goals, and mapped out how they wanted to achieve specific revenue, profit, or market share targets. One of the CEOs shared his company’s “50 in 5” strategy. He explained, “Our strategy is to grow to $50 million in revenue within the next five years. This year we crossed $32 million, and we’re aiming for 15 percent growth next year.”

Another portion of the group talked about the strategic actions their company was pursuing: projects that were perceived as important for the business, such as opening a new office or launching a new product. The third group emphasized their priorities: areas of investment for time, resources, or capital to advance the company, such as increasing brand awareness in digital channels.

The problem is that goals, actions, and priorities are not strategies. They may help inform the creation of a strategy, but on their own they’re not a strategy.

Richard Rumelt writes in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, “Strategy is about how an organization will move forward. Doing strategy is figuring out how to advance the organization’s interests.”

He continues, “A strategy is like a lever that magnifies force. Yes, you might be able to drag a giant block of rock across the ground with muscles, ropes, and motivation. But it is wiser to build levers and wheels and then move the rock.”

The desired destination of the rock is the goal, and how you move it is your strategy. “How” is the critical component. You are creating and implementing a strategy to effectively achieve a goal.

Answering How Requires Heavy Lifting

There’s a classic meme on the internet called, “How to Draw An Owl.” It’s positioned as a fun and creative guide for beginners.

How to draw an owl

Step 1: Draw 2 circles. One for the head and one for the body.
Step 2: Draw the rest of the damn owl!

Aghhh! This sums up the experience many of us have with business.

You read the business books, listen to podcasts, and look for best practices — but it all sounds like the “experts” are telling you to draw a proverbial owl: “Just find your WHY” or “pick your BHAG — big hairy audacious goal” and you will be successful.

But all these guides and how-to manuals simply give us the “why” and the “what,” not the “how.”

Sometimes you can google for the answer — like how to tie your shoelaces — but in most cases there isn’t a clearly defined roadmap. You have to figure it out!

Two Questions to Get to How

In my strategy coaching work, I bring forward two tools to help a company develop its strategy:

1. Critical Success Factors (CSFs): What do you need to achieve?

You can have a bold vision and aspirational goals, but when you look at your business what do you really need to achieve within the next three years?

A CSF is a practical yet aspirational objective that is focused on a key part of your business or customer experience. For example, “In the next 3 years we will be perceived as the category leader in sustainable manufacturing in our industry.”

A good strategy will only have three to seven CSFs.

2. Strategic Initiatives: How will you achieve the CSF?

Strategic Initiatives (SI) articulate how (at a big picture level) your business will achieve a CSF.

For instance, to achieve the sustainable manufacturing CSF the company might write:

  • Complete ISO 9001 and 14001 certification.
  • Implement “zero waste” standards.
  • Eliminate plastic from all our packaging and shipping materials.

Each Critical Success Factor can have multiple Strategic Initiatives. You don’t have to limit your SIs like you do with CSFs.

How is the Strategy

The combination of CSFs and SIs creates a powerful roadmap for your team, because they clearly articulate what is important with a set of guidelines on how to achieve them. This can then be used to frame your work plans and priorities for each quarter: what do we need to complete this quarter to move us towards achieving our CSFs?

Your strategy is in the how you will get your business to what by when.

Need Help With Your Strategy?

If you’d like to discover how Sticky Branding can help you, let’s chat. Here’s a link to my calendar.