It was the 14th revision of a global operations strategy for a very large company that will remain nameless (but makes very tasty food). We had done all the situation analysis, set preliminary objectives, walked around preliminary strategies to all the functional heads and their strategy staff, collected valuable input and made modifications. We had really good alignment and leaders were even excited about it! But now it didn’t look anything like what we had shopped around. And the global operations EVP kept making more changes and each time he did, it looked less like a strategy and more like a glorified financial plan; complete with a long list of accomplishments but lacking forward thinking. (FYI, it took 32 revisions to get this EVPs Board presentation ready.)
Many businesses, especially large publically traded companies, fall into similar traps. Strategic plans really are a cover for what amounts to financial commitments. They’re not really strategies. I mean, really. How many global companies have a strategy that says something like “grow emerging markets”? Duh. Almost all of them. Isn’t that just expected of a global company?
Strategy should be something more. Strategy is not just about being better so the numbers go the right direction. It’s about how a company is going to win by being different. Apple has become the classic example. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, they were not only better than other consumer choices… they were different. And when that difference begins eroding between Apple products and the competition, so do the advantages Apple once had.
As a leader in business, don’t let strategy devolve into glorified financial planning exercises. Real strategy that matters is about differentiation. Real strategy goes beyond the classical strategic planning framework and includes frameworks to identify differentiating opportunities. Consumers (and investors) aren’t just waiting for the next upgrade to the next iPhone. They’re waiting for the next different Apple product.
Be better and deliver the numbers, for sure. But create strategies to be different.