Strategy doesn't equal planning.

A plan is not a strategy

A comprehensive plan – with goals, initiatives, and budgets – is comforting. But starting with a plan is a terrible way to create strategy. A business plan is not a strategy. Developing strategy means going outside an organization’s comfort zone and escaping the common traps of strategic planning, says Professor Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and one of the world’s leading thinkers on strategy.

This article is based on a hugely successful YouTube video (4 million views since 2022), in which Roger Martin explains the difference between strategy and planning, concisely and clearly in only 9 min 31 sec. The video is produced by the Harvard Business Review, and you have open access.

Prof. Martin says in the video:

Most strategic planning in business has nothing to do with strategy. It’s a set of activities that the company says it’s going to do, eg  “We’re going to improve customer experience,” “We’re going to open this new plant,”  “We’re going to start this new talent development program,” etc.

“Putting ‘strategic’ and ‘planning’ together doesn’t help. Most strategic planning in business has nothing to do with strategy,” he notes. It’s got the word, but it’s not actually strategy. It’s a set of activities the company says it’s going to do, eg “We’re going to improve customer experience.”

Takeaways from Prof. Martin’s video

Strategy

A strategy is an integrated set of choices that positions you on a playing field of your choice in a way that you win. Strategy has a theory. “Here’s why we should be on this playing field, not this other one – and here’s how, on that playing field, we’re going to be better than anyone else at serving the customers on that playing field.” A strategic theory must be coherent and doable. You have to be able to translate it into actions for it to be a great strategy.

A strategy specifies a competitive outcome that you wish to achieve, which involves customers wanting to buy enough of your products or services to enable you to achieve your profitability target:

  • Actual customers are the customers.
  • You don’t control them.
  • You don’t control revenues.

Don’t let strategy get over-complicated

Another thing that helps with strategy is not letting it get over-complicated. It’s great if you can write your strategy on a single page:

  • Here’s where we are choosing to play.
  • Here’s how we’re choosing to win.
  • Here are the capabilities we need to have in place.
  • Here are the management systems.
  • And that’s why [the strategy] is going to lead to achieving this goal, this aspiration we have.

Planning

Planning typically does not have the coherence of strategy. There tends to be a list that doesn’t have full cohesion, and no specification of a way that that is going to collectively accomplish some goal for the company:

  • You control costs.
  • You are the customer. You decide how many raw materials to buy, how many square feet to lease, how many people to hire, etc.
  • These actions are more comfortable because you can control them.

Prof. Martin concludes:

Then you lay out the logic – what must be true for that all to work out the way we hope to be true. Go do it, and watch and tweak as you go along. That may feel somewhat more worry-making, angst-making than planning, but I would tell you that if you plan, that’s a way to guarantee losing. If you do strategy, it gives you the best possible chance of winning.

But what about strategic planning, and planning strategic communication/PR?

Loose use of ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’

‘Strategy’ and ‘strategic’ often are loosely used terms in public relations, communication management, and in business generally. Communicators are prone to use the words because they sound high-level, businesslike and profound to their senior management and clients (as in ‘strategic messages’ or ‘strategic direction,’ or to describe activities, as in ‘communication strategy.’ They can be used as political terms organizationally and have connotations of power. Communicators may use the words in a tactical sense, or they may just misunderstand the meaning in a communication context, and really mean an aim, purpose, objective or planning. The reality is they don’t engage enough in actual high-level thinking.

Here are some of the wide variety of current uses of the terms ‘strategic communication‘ and ‘strategic public relations‘ and similar, from Google:

  • Defining Strategic Communication. …strategic communication…, is defined as the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission.”
  • Strategic communication helps make creative ideas sound smart and strategically sound. [!!!]
  • Strategic communication refers to policy-making and guidance for consistent information activity within an organization and between organizations.
  • A communications strategy is a plan for communicating with your target audience.
  • This course will teach you how to communicate and engage with various stakeholders and audiences strategically.
  • The need for keenly targeted and strategically effective communication has never been greater…
  • Strategic communications is a specialized approach to distributing and receiving information.
  • A strategic PR plan can help an organization proactively manage its reputation and mitigate risks from negative publicity.
  • Strategic Public Relations Management features an applied approach to evidence-based, strategic public relations management.
  • Putting strategy front and center, this public relations writing textbook coaches students to readiness for a career as an effective strategic communicator.
  • What is a PR strategy? A PR strategy helps a business create, organize, and measure the effectiveness of its public relations tactics over time. (HubSpot)
  • At an organisational level, effective communications are based on properly developed strategies aimed at achieving clearly defined objectives.
  • Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. (PRSA)
  • The recipient of this badge can define and apply key ideas in the field of strategic communications and build a well-developed strategic PR plan.

Some of the 1,518 posted comments from Prof. Martin’s video viewers

  1. In summary, strategy involves external elements and uncertainty whereas planning does not. And strategy focuses on preparing to win whereas planning focuses on completing a checklist of work.
  2. “Strategy” is a tool to respond the challenges of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment. “Planning” is to improve on best practices. Ultimately, both are essential.
  3. I’m a Strategic Planning Director of one of the leading advertising agencies worldwide for many years. But this short, sharp, crystal-clear definition helped me a lot, even after more than 24 years global expertise in the industry. THANKS Roger Martin for sharing this masterclass.
  4. I have never heard this sharp an articulation of strategy as this. The way Prof Martin has explained this is incredibly clear and helps understand the difference between playing and winning.
  5. This is a great presentation, thank you. It fits along with the concept that if you’re not incurring some risk, you’re not going to win. Or to extend that, if you’re only managing the expense side of a business, you’re eventually going to lose. It’s a slow downward spiral to lowest cost for commodity production, at best.

Further reading

You can read further about analysis for strategy and planning in my article, “Use SWOT, PESTLE and VUCA analysis for communication planning.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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