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The difference between strategy and strategic plans (and the impact on marketing)

This out take from an hour of discussion recorded exclusively for our Pivotal Marketer Community on Facebook (where the full recording is available) sees Mike Baxter strategy expert and MMC’s Rene Power cover the differences in strategy and strategy plans and the impact on specific business areas like marketing.

It’s the third in a series of serialisations on strategy, be sure to check all new posts as they publish (or see the recommended reading below).

Rene Power:

We’re getting some really interesting comments about the gap between strategy and execution being too wide. Which I think is a common challenge for people who are fairly new into their career or a kind of junior mid-level, like you said, a couple of steps away from senior management

Mike Baxter:

Yeah. Sure.

Rene Power:

And the board and such.

Strategy and strategic plans are two completely different things

Mike Baxter:

So I would go even farther. And I think that the strategy and the strategic plan are two completely different things. And nearly everyone in business that I work with don’t make that clear distinction well, until I start shouting out them and trying to persuade them to make that distinction.
So strategy for me is the things we’ve just talked about. It’s the destination, it’s the reason or benefits for getting there and a handful of core methods in order to get there.

Now, that on its own, isn’t going to change anything. Because I, as a member of the frontline team, that’s not fine grain enough for me.
Let’s say I’m in the marketing team and I’m responsible for a social. Now, what am I going to make of these core methods? It mentions marketing, but it doesn’t say anything in nearly enough detail about social marketing for me to translate it.
So you’ve got to drill down. Now, as soon as you start drilling down, you start fixing things. And if you put them in strategy, strategy is going to become brittle and it’s going to break.

If you separate out the destination and the handful of core methods that is strategy, now you start drilling down. That’s the strategic plan. And the strategic plan needs to go through a process of what I call strategy adoption.

Now other people have different names for it. They’ll talk about strategy, execution, strategy deployment. Now for me, they’ve got all the wrong associations.
I don’t execute a strategy. It sounds like I’m putting a gun to somebody’s head. I don’t deploy it. I don’t have a steam roller and roll it out across the organisation. It’s got to come the other direction. The people in the frontline teams have got to adopt the strategy.

And in order to do that, if I’m the senior leader, I need to negotiate with them. This is where I’d like to get to, how can you help? And what they will then say is, oh, well, you probably don’t realise, but we’ve tried six of these things already and they don’t work. So we’re not going to do them again. There are these other things we haven’t tried. They’re going to cost a little bit of money. Do you want to do what you want to do badly enough to invest in us trying these new things?
Now we’ve got a deal.

I have said what I want, you have told me, because you’re on the frontline. And you know the front end of the business. You’ve told me what can and really can’t be done from your point of view, I’ve gained from your expertise.

And you’ve just made my objective a little bit more realisable. That’s strategy adoption. That sounds very different to me from strategy execution. So I don’t like the words implementation, deployment or execution. I really like the notion of strategy adoption because it sounds like-

Rene Power:

You taking it on and kind of making it your own. Yeah?

Mike Baxter:

Absolutely. And if it doesn’t happen, it is going to be deployed. It’s going to be steamrollered over my team and I’m going to get some imposition of, I’ve got to hit this target that I’ve had no involvement in constructing.

It’s completely top down. It may not have any relevance to what I’m doing on the ground. And there is also no information for me as to how you expect me to achieve that. Probably you’re not giving me any more budget unless it’s been negotiated. So I just think strategy adoption is a much more useful and relevant concept to strategy execution or strategy deployment.

Applying strategy in my part of the business

Rene Power:

Is that where, for example, we got Harrison in the chat. I think he’s been doing a little bit of reading around the this, he’s talking about sub-strategy. And is that what this is talking to it’s how I can take what is the business strategy and where it wants to get to, and start to think about and apply that to what I’m doing in my role, so that I can play a part in all of us achieving this thing that we’ve all set out to do.

Mike Baxter:

Okay. So here’s two points of view for you. Completely opposing. So Roger Martin, who I think two years ago, was voted the world’s leading thinker on management talks about the strategy cascade. And he reckons that the overall strategy is perhaps the parent, if you like, or the big strategy under what you perhaps have a sales and marketing strategy.

Under which you perhaps have a marketing strategy. Under which you perhaps have a social media strategy. All good and well.

Michael Porter reckons, if there is more than one strategy, you’ve got it wrong. You cannot have more than one strategy in an organisation. So who’s right? The world’s number one management thinker from two years ago, or the world’s number one management thinker from 10 years ago.

My argument is they’re both right. What we need to do is we need to be clear about which part of the strategy is going to be handled by the marketing and sales teams.

You need to be quite clear about which of the primary objectives, which are the core methods that we talked about are going to be the primary responsibility of the marketing and sales team, but do not cast them off and let them do their own thing. They have got to do sales and marketing in service of the main strategy.
And these sub-strategies have got to be completely tied in with a major strategy. And there’s a technique that I use quite a lot called strategy mapping, which does that glueing together.

It connects together the things you want to achieve with a means by which you achieve them. And that way, I think we can please both Roger Martin, who wants to have this cascade of responsibilities going through the organisation and Michael Porter, who says there’s only one strategy because these sub-strategies are so closely tied together, they are in effect all part of the same strategy.

Rene Power:

Interesting. I think again, just thinking about the practitioner view on this. It really is about aligning the most valuable work, the top priorities. And as one of the guys in the chart says about ultimately achieving the CEO’s strategies, that parent strategy is ultimately the driving force, isn’t it?

Everything else is an iteration of that into a relative discipline or department of how, what they do is going to play a part in achieving that grander strategy or it should be, it should do.
Mike Baxter:

Emphasis on it should be because very few strategies are actually validated. So you can actually go through and validate the strategy and say all of these things that we’re doing on the front line, do they add up to the big picture?

And very often they don’t. And that’s where that gets to be huge frustration and conflict within organisations, the senior leadership team is jumping up and down and saying, give me the numbers, give me the numbers, give me the numbers.

The frontline teams are saying, we genuinely don’t know how to do it or we don’t have the resources or we don’t have the people, or we don’t have the data, or we don’t have the tech. And that sort of failure within organisations is lamentably common. But it is to me, a profound failure of strategy.

Rene Power:

Is that the biggest challenge you’ve faced in all those many hours of consulting, when you go into companies that are fundamentally, for the better word, schizophrenic in terms of that strategy.

You’ve got very dominant sales narrative in an organisation, but you’ve got marketing and maybe other disciplines trying to have an influence on the agenda or in so many businesses, particularly in my specialist’s area, B2B, sales generally moons the roost.
They are sales-led organisations not necessarily marketing-led organisations. Is that one of the biggest sources of conflict over all your years of consulting, would you say?

Mike Baxter:

I wouldn’t disagree with you, but I’d put a slightly different spin on it, I think Rene. The one thing that is lovely having worked with some start-up organisations and some fast-growth start-up organisation is that as you move from start-up into scale up, the thing you need to do is you need to build repeatable, reliable, good quality processes. And these are effectively building bureaucracies.

So you set up ways of working business as usual, and you set them up as structures and you put them into an org chart and you write policies about them and you devise technologies to support these scalable repeatable processes.

They’re very hard to break. If you then want to innovate, you have to start breaking some of these processes that many people have spent many years of their lives making unbreakable because it’s the very unbreakability of them that makes them scalable and it makes them able to do robust resilient work in the face of changing external circumstances.

So one of the hardest things about strategy is how you dismantle the very mechanisms that the organisation has worked hard to put in place to make sure they do things in a repeatable robust way, but one which will drive them into the grave in five years time, if they just keep doing that. Because they’re not innovating around those scaled structures. So I would say it is-

Rene Power:

It impacts innovation and flexibility, doesn’t it?

Mike Baxter:

It does. And it is ultimately a people problem. It is about how you get people to work together effectively and not be pulling in opposite directions. But I think that the systems and processes that are put in place to make businesses robust and reliable actually make them less resilient.

Rene Power:

Yeah. That’s a really interesting point. I know I follow people like Seth Godin and he writes a lot about the industrial complex and kind of where we are in relation to that kind of industrialization of everything and everybody being a cog in the machine and doing that bit for the greater good and that fits very well into a strategy narrative that we’re talking about.

But it also, as you’re identifying create some further ancillary problems further down the line, because the world outside of this is obviously in a state of flux and perhaps always has, and always will be.

And it’s how to compete with that. We’ve seen runs like Kodak completely disappeared often we’d who were market leaders, not what 10, 12, 15 years ago. So you see a huge graveyard of brands that have failed to adapt.

Mike Baxter:

And as a slight aside it’s not just a problem in business. So I was reading some stuff relatively recently that it is a very, very well known problem in ecology. So species become very, very specialised and become very, very efficient at exploiting a particular niche. And as a result of that, they lose resilience. So they’re no longer able to adapt to climate change or change in environment.

So this is an ecological problem as well as a business problem. So it’s not something that is unique or distinctive to business. The balance between efficiency and resilience is something that seems to be quite universal.