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PhD, Union Institute / Doctor of Social Science, University of Leicester

Unfortunately, the term “strategic” has been warped into new meaning. It’s used as a way to say something is better, enhanced. Okay, but no.

I’ve even seen it used as “strategic management,” which is a blatant oxymoron.

Nor is “strategic” just bigger in scope. 

“Strategic” has to do with the future. It also has to do with complexity, not just simple or complicated. Finally, it has to do with the unknown. 

You don’t need a strategy for going to the grocery store and shopping. You know the way, you know what they have, and you know where they keep it. If you have any doubts about any of those matters, you can resolve it quickly by asking. All of it is either known or quickly “know-able.” Tactics–even tactical planning–are required. But not strategy.

Strategy is for what Heifetz and Linsky call adaptive challenges–things that arise (or will) that we don’t know how to solve, don’t know what will result, don’t know where they will take us, etc. It’s much more about inner resiliency than specific plans. As one wag put it, “Strategic plans suck, but strategic planning is essential.” 

Strategy is about taking on complexity–challenges that we don’t see coming, and will require new thinking to resolve. It is common for us to reduce complex challenges to simple (or complicated) issues and solutions. But it is a mistake. Politicians do this all the time with sloganeering–giving people some simple idea they can relate to. Gun control is a classic example of a complex problem that is routinely reduced to simple ideas (on both sides of that issue). 

Strategy also involves what Michael Patton calls developmental evaluation–where we’re on a strategic path towards some desired outcome. But, because the outcome is complex, we really don’t know the exact way to get there. So we have to check along the way to see not just if we’re on track–because there is no track–but to see how we’re doing and if where we are is a good place. With strategy, you’ll end up where you’re supposed to, but not necessarily at your original destination.

Contrast this with your car’s GPS. If you stray from the route it has laid out for you, what does it do? It re-routes you. And it will keep doing this, incessantly, until you stop. At no point will it ask, “Are you going someplace new?” It won’t learn from your changes in route–it expects you to comply. That’s the antithesis of strategy. And I say it is the them of most organizational life and work.

So, strategy is not bigger. It’s not bolder. It’s not just an adjective. It’s a way we can begin to resolve complex issues. It’s a different way of perceiving the world.