Communicators must understand strategy vs. strategic planning.

Communicators must understand strategy vs. strategic planning

To make a positive impact within an organization and its external marketplace, communicators must understand strategy. This is because effective communication needs to be based on a strong and clear foundation. However, like the concept of communication, the concept of strategy is often confused. Strategic planning is often confused as strategy. In a similar way, a communication initiative or plan is not necessarily a communication strategy.

In high-level planning meetings or within planning meetings of the communication team, it is vital  to be clear about the concept of strategy for successful outcomes. Definitely, communicators must understand strategy vs. strategic planning.

Eminent business strategist and former professor Roger Martin (ranked the 5th most influential management thinker in the world in 2021), communicates in reader-friendly terms. Rather conversing in academic-speak, he speaks and writes in a readily understandable way, as below.

Definition of strategy

Roger Martin defines strategy in practical terms during a Forbes interview in 2022:

Strategy is a set of choices that position you on a given playing field in a way that you will win. That kind of strategy work happens 10% of the time; 90% of the time it’s strategic planning.

Strategic planning in essence is the listing of a set of initiatives; typically initiatives that are hard to disagree with, have sparse detail on how to manifest them, and low probability that you’ll actually do all of them. That rarely is strategy, and even more rarely do those things together accomplish something in particular.

The lesson: don’t mix up strategy with strategic planning!

Image, right: Roger Martin. Director of several firms, He was Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto for 15 years.

Business advisor John McAuliffe reinforces Martin’s points in a 2024 Medium article, “Strategy is not planning.” He says, “Planning is comfortable because it involves the resources you can control…Planning is the act of laying out projects with timelines, deliverables, budgets and responsibilities.”

A great strategy must have a coherent theory, be doable, an be translatable into actions. Strategy is about compelling the variable you don’t control, while planning is controlling the variables you do. [My view is that saying ‘compelling’ is too strong to use as a term here. A better word for communicators in my view would be ‘shaping’ or ‘influencing’ the variable you don’t control. It’s like the difference between stakeholder management versus stakeholder relations management.]

McAuliffe says we should think of strategy as a map:

The map has to show you where you are and where you want to go. It should also show you the terrain and the obstacles you may encounter along the way. Without a map, you’ll be lost, and without a strategy, you’ll be directionless.

The-Strategy-Choice-Cascade-Roger-Martin-HBR-2017.jRoger Martin explains the strategy process

This approach to strategy could apply at any level within an organization, including the communication function. Communicators must understand strategy vs. strategic planning to gain a respected role in the view of senior management.

Start with a problem that you want to solve. For example, “Our market share is going down, there’s a new major competitor and customer churn is growing,” etc., Then imagine possibilities for making that problem go away [including a communication strategy to help address the problem.] I could do A, I could do B, I could do C, D or E.”

Then for each possibility, ask the single most important question in strategy:

  • “What would have to be true?” – “What would have to be true for possibility A to make that problem go away?” and “What would have to be true about the industry, our customers, ourselves, our competitors?” Then:
  • “If this and this and this are true, possibility A would be good.” Or, “If these other things are true, possibility B would be good.” And so on.
  • Then identify those things that need to be true, which you are most worried about not being true? Those are the barriers standing between you and choosing a path forward.
  • Having identified those barriers, then, and only then, do you conduct analysis.

Martin says strategic choices need to be made simultaneously – all at the same time, not in a sequence. Each decision has to link together and reinforce each other. This produces matched sets of choices. [Unfortunately, the image above implies that the choices are made in a sequence.]

What should strategy be?

Strategy is first and foremost a problem-solving tool, according to Martin. A strategy process will be largely worthless without an identified problem it is intended to solve. If you don’t specify a problem, any set of choices is acceptable as a way forward. That’s why strategy often feels bland and unimportant: it doesn’t solve a meaningful pressing problem, so who cares? It is also why there are often many intense arguments over which strategy to choose. Without a problem against which to judge the quality of a strategy choice, the choice simply becomes a matter of opinion, and everybody is equally capable of making an argument for the strategy that fits their opinion.

Strategy problems start with the customer or stakeholder behaving in ways you wish they wouldn’t. Martin believes the best way to define the problem to be solved is to do in-depth qualitative interviews with customers or stakeholders. Around 10-20 customers will be enough; probably even fewer key stakeholders. Martin believes:

To have been worthwhile, a strategy development initiative most solve the identified problem. That’s how to determine whether your strategy is sound: does it have a strong chance of making the strategy problem go away? Any possibility should be judged against this standard, and the winning choice is the one that best solves the problem identified.

A common objection to the problem-led approach to strategy is that we might get the problem wrong and therefore the strategy will then be wrong, too. However, failing to make strategy a problem-solving exercise just returns us to the above set of shortcomings.

Also, the problem definition will never be perfectly correct. Since it is not possible to accurately know everything about the strategic context of your operational environment, your initial problem definition will always be wrong to some extent.

Further reading

An article that can give you good insights into campaign planning is “Ask key questions for best solutions in communication campaigns“.

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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