The Thing About Strategy – Why You Will Never “Get It Right”

Both the current situation in Syria and the start of my classes for this semester have me thinking about strategy. In fact, my pondering about the news reports I’ve been hearing regarding our strategy (or lack thereof) for addressing the situation in Syria helped me to frame what I believe are some important point for students in my PR Campaigns class, as well as for some clients I’m currently working with on strategic planning projects.

What is strategy? Basically, it’s thinking about what your end goal is, and what you should do now, based on the variety of responses that your action might generate. Just doing something without considering those potential responses is not strategy.

An important point about strategy is that, whether we’re devising a military strategy or a strategy for the implementation of a marketing plan, while we can surmise the reactions that our actions might generate, we can never be 100% sure. This is where the risk of planning comes into play and is, I think, why many planning efforts drag on, involve a great deal of navel-gazing and a tendency to “do nothing.” While it’s impossible to accurately predict the actual impact of doing something, we continue in our attempts to “do the right thing.”

The failure to act is an action, though. Even in the act of doing nothing  we are doing something that is going to have some impact on us. Ponder that idea for a while!

Consider a company that is making a decision about whether to embrace social media in a big way (whatever that might mean for that business). While they’re pondering that decision the world is still moving around them–competitors may be embracing social media, for instance, and getting a head start on them. New communication technologies may be emerging. New business models may be threatening the basic premise of what they have to offer.

Here’s a key point:  nobody knows if your plan will be successful. Nobody! Others may have opinions – and many inputs you receive may be well-formed opinions based on prior experience. But, because none of us can predict the future or the behaviors of others, we can’t really know until we act (or fail to act).

How to increase the “rightness” of your planning efforts? Through research. The more effectively you can research and learn about the situation, your position, and the position of those you wish to influence, the more likely you will make sound decisions or good judgments. (Notice I didn’t say “the more likely you will make the right decision“–right decisions only become “right” after they have been made and the situation has played out.)

How much time and effort should you put into the data-gathering, research and evaluation (aka “navel-gazing”) process? It depends. On what? Risk vs. reward. You need to consider:

  • What is the worst that could happen if I proceed based on what I know now? What is the best?
  • What opportunities might I miss and what is their value to the organization?
  • What might I learn from doing something now that I might be able to apply in the future?

In some cases you don’t need to spend a lot of time conducting research, gathering background information or engaging in discussions about the situation. The risk may not be too great of either doing, or not doing, something. Suppose you want to see if running a Facebook ad might generate some results. Pretty low risk. On the other hand, suppose you want to launch a new product or are considering locating a new clinic or branch location–greater risk, which requires more planning and consideration. (You must, of course, also consider the risk of not acting — for instance, the knowledge that a competitor is moving into your market which requires more immediate action).

Our goal in planning is simply to create the best plan we can given our assessment of the situation and solid, appropriate, research.

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