What is strategy?

Understanding the different definitions of strategy can help chief communication officers in their counselling of the CEO and the C-suite, as well as in their own attempts to support the larger corporate strategy

Strategy is one of the most important concepts for chief communication officers, yet also one of the least understood.

Everyone knows of its importance. The echoes of critique, “You have no strategy,” “That’s too tactical,” “That’s a bad strategy!” combined with the advent of strategic communications, planning, counsel and management, only reinforce the belief that communication professionals must develop strategy and strategic plans, as well as think strategically.

Greater precision in our ways of thinking and talking about strategy will help us gain greater clarity in the development, discussion and execution of strategy. It will also give us a better understanding of the immense value that strategy brings to the work of chief communication officers.

" Greater precision in our ways of thinking and talking about strategy will help us gain greater clarity in the development, discussion and execution of strategy."

But what exactly is strategy, how do we know it when we see it, and are we clear on why we need it? Consulting the classic work of strategic management researcher Henry Mintzberg provides guidance on this. Mintzberg offered five definitions and types of strategy that we will review to discuss how understanding the fine points between strategic thinking and planning help communication professionals in their field.

We will focus on how this improves communication professionals’ counseling to the chief executive officer, the rest of the C-suite or the board, as well as their personal design and execution of communication strategy in support of the larger corporate strategy.

Five types of strategy

Let’s start with Mintzberg’s unpacking of the different types of strategies. An intended strategy is one that is planned before action takes place. An emergent strategy is one that is not intended or planned ahead of time, but emerges step by step.

A deliberate strategy is one that is intended and is seen through to realisation. Once it is discovered, however, an emergent strategy can become deliberate. A realised strategy is a strategy that is accomplished. It may be the result of a deliberate strategy or an emergent strategy. Finally, an unrealised strategy is one that is planned ahead of time but abandoned before realisation.

Five definitions of strategy

Mintzberg also offers five definitions of strategy:

1. A strategy is a plan. It is a consciously intended course of action and a set of guidelines for dealing with situations in routine or formulaic ways. Here, strategy is a unified, comprehensive, and integrated plan designed to ensure that an organisation’s objectives are achieved. From this definition, strategies have two characteristics: they are made in advance and they are developed purposefully.

2. A strategy is a pattern. That is, it is a pattern of actions in a stream of behaviour, without necessarily having a plan. Through adaptation or improvisation, a routine emerges from constant refinement. This is where an intended strategy emerges from a pattern of action and then becomes the strategy. Alternatively, others may observe the pattern, routine or consistency in behaviour, infer a strategy and then label it so, whether or not a strategy was intended.

3. A strategy is a position. Here, strategy is a way to locate an organisation in the context of its environment. It describes the organisation’s choice of where in the market or environment it concentrates resources. This view of strategy is not focused on contending with one competitor but with all competitors, or on avoiding competition altogether. Likewise, this view allows for collaboration.

4. A strategy is a perspective. This view of strategy suggests that it is located in the mind of the strategist. It is not just a chosen position, it is more than that. It is a mindset – an ingrained way of perceiving the world. This view is very similar to what organisational psychologists label ‘mental models’, ‘interpretive schemas’ and ‘scripts’ and what organisational sociologists label as ‘ideology’. Viewing strategy as a perspective is not just located in the mind of the strategist. It’s also in the mind of all other interested parties, including audiences, third-parties and casual observers. Importantly, strategy as a perspective allows us to consider shared meaning by members of an organisation, through their intentions and their actions, and involves the emergence of a collective mind in which individuals are united by common thinking and behaviour.

5. Then, finally, a strategy can also be a ploy, designed to outmaneuver one’s competitors.

Why we need strategy

Understanding the types and definitions of strategy is nice, but it still begs the question of why we need strategies. Here, too, Mintzberg offers guidance.

For the organisation: Mintzberg argued that organisations need strategy because strategy helps them set a direction for themselves, outmaneuver their competitors, guide themselves through threatening environments, focus their efforts and promote the coordination of effort, define the organisation and provide consistency.

Strategy in organisations settles the big matters so that people can get on with the little details. The chief executive officer too must get on with managing the organisation in a given context; he or she cannot continually put that context into question.

Organisational definition is important for insiders and for outsiders (outsiders need to feel they know the business without being in the business). Strategies reduce uncertainty and provide consistency (however arbitrary) in order to aid cognition, to satisfy people’s intrinsic need for order, and to promote efficiency under conditions of stability by concentrating resources and exploiting past learning.

Strategies can help reduce the need for learning in the broad sense that having a strategy facilitates fast, almost automatic responses to known stimuli. Strategies enable people to ‘get on with things’ without having to think them through each time.

For individuals: Strategy also plays important roles for people, too. Mintzberg wrote that people need strategies because they have a need for consistency. Consistency provides people with a sense of control. Strategy provides relief from anxiety created by complexity, unpredictability and incomplete information.

Strategy also helps with decision fatigue caused by making too many decisions.

Whether by making a new decision every time that a recurring situation is encountered anew or by revisiting opening a decision up for debate every time a recurring or new situation is encountered.

Further, it helps overcome the paradox of competence. As Stuart Albert describes the paradox with his research on timing, the human brain has what is called ‘the Q capacity’ which allows people to think about the distant past and the future without analysing all of the intermediate steps involved. He says people would be paralysed if it took anhour to think about any action that took an hour to accomplish. But the mind’s ability to jump from point to point makes it easy to miss sequences or other temporal matters that affect decision making.

Relatedly, the brain faces what Albert calls ‘Copland’s Constraint’. Copland’s Constraint was named after the composer Aaron Copland who pointed out that when people listen to music, it is often difficult to listen to more than four melodies at one time before the composition becomes a blur of sound and the internal organisation of music is lost.

"Strategy also helps with decision fatigue caused by making too many decisions."

Thus, making sense of a large number of synchronic processes or events is not something people can do in their heads. Instead, when planning, people must think sequentially in terms of what follows what.

Moving forward

Without strategies, organisations face cognitive overload and members have no way of dealing with experiences consistently. Thus, a strategy is a categorising scheme by which incoming stimuli can be ordered and dispatched; it can help an organisation to move in a relatively straight line, but it reduces peripheral vision. The very role of encouraging people to “get on with it” impedes an organisation’s ability to respond to environmental change.

Strategies can be vital to organisations, not only through their presence but also through their absence. Sometimes a lack of strategy is necessary and may represent a stage of transition from an outdated strategy to a more viable one, or that the environment has turned so dynamic that it would be unwise to be consistent. We function best when we can take some things for granted, at least for a period of time, but the problem is that eventually situations change, the environment destabilises and niches disappear. Since the very role of strategy is to protect the organisation from distraction, a strategy can blind an organisation to its own outdatedness.

The question remains as to how long an organisation can survive with outdated strategies or no strategies at all. Mintzberg suggests that an organisation without a strategy is like a person without a personality and that an organisation without a name cannot be discussed.

Craig Carroll

As well as leading the New York-based Observatory on Corporate Reputation, Professor Craig Carroll lectures and teaches on corporate communication at New York University, Copenhagen Business School, the Instituto de Empresa Communication School in Madrid, Singapore Management University and the University of Florida. He is also the author of Handbook of Communication and Corporate Reputation.