The difference between strategy and intentions

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To get your organization to make the journey from wanting to talking to doing, it’s useful to think about how you well you have defined the strategy for getting it done.

Strategy defines what you will DO

Often, organizations mistake a strategy for a description of end outcomes. They will say “Our strategy is to improve our user experience, or to solve the performance problems.”

Although those statements sound like actions (because there is a verb in them) they are really descriptions of intentions, not strategy. They describe outcomes that would result from specific actions.

You can’t simply tell your organization, “Go forth and improve user experience.” There are a gazillion different things you could do to improve user experience. If you do the right ones, the user-experience will improve — that’s an outcome.

Likewise, there are a gazillion different things you could do to increase system performance. And if you do the right ones, the system will go faster — that’s an outcome.

An organization won’t suddenly self-optimize and reorganize what it’s doing to execute on a newly defined outcome without some more concrete direction. Lack of concrete definition of strategy is one of the biggest hazards of navigating successfully through any strategic initiative. Every project, program, or strategy has a beginning — a kick-off, and it has desired outcomes defined at the end.

But what is also common to every project, program or strategy is that it also has a Middle. And while great investment and intention is often applied to the beginning and to the end, the Middle (where literally everything needs to happen) is often left largely undefined. And organizations just embark… and hope for the outcome.

…So your important intentions remain outcomes that you keep talking about, instead of actions that you complete.

What do I type now?

A good strategy must chart a course through the Middle. It must define what you will DO in a concrete enough manner that people will know what to, well…DO —  throughout the entire Middle.

I learned this lesson when I was managing a large group of software developers. I announced our new strategy to them, which was something very much like: improve user experience and performance.

I was very pleased with this because this simple statement was a result of paring down hundreds of demands and feature requests to what would be most critical to the business. It was not a trivial decision to prioritize this “strategy” over other ideas.

But at the end of the meeting where I announced this to my team, one of the most senior engineers in the group said, “That sounds like a good strategy, Patty, but now… what do I type?”

Ah….yes…Software engineers type.  And I had not given my team enough information about what they should do differently. I had given them outcomes, not a strategy. So the engineers had no idea what they should do next. What should they stop typing? And what new things they should start typing?

Defining strategy

So we went back to the drawing board and further clarified the strategy into more concrete (DO-able) elements.

1. We will hire front-end, help desk people trained in customer service (As it turns out, no new typing required for this one.)

2. We will modify the user interface of our service to contain the specific language of our users. (Engineers thus, had to learn the language and issues of our users and change the user interface. Indeed, new learning and typing would be required here.)

3. To increase performance, we would swap out our underlying database technology instead of making improvement to the existing one. (Engineers would stop their typing to fix the old database, find a new database, and start typing to test and integrate the new one.)

4. We would train our sales engineers to work with the customers to modify their system use to avoid the biggest performance issue. (No typing for the engineers).

Those four points became an actual strategy because they stated what we needed to DO. And if we did those four things we would get the two outcomes of “improved user experience” and “increased performance” that I had initially and mistakenly described as “the Strategy.”

Beware of nodding heads

Nodding heads on a vaguely-defined outcome does not result in forward movement because the target is not concrete enough to lead to specific action. It’s not that people actively disagree or don’t want to support it, it’s simply that they don’t know what they are supposed to do differently.

Look at your strategy. If you never clearly define your strategy as what you intend to DO, everyone nods their head about the agreed intention and then just goes back to work.

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