The Five Myths of Business Strategy

by Rich Horwath, CEO
Strategic Thinking Institute

Consider some of the most popular myths:

  • Lightning never strikes the same place twice (it does).
  • There is no gravity in space (there is… just less).
  • Pigeons blow up if fed uncooked rice (they don’t).

Which myths or half-truths have permeated your organization, and what effect have they had on your business? Running a business on myths, flawed business principles and baseless assumptions creates needless confusion and a lack of strategic direction. A study of 10,000 senior executives showed that the most important leadership behavior critical to company success – according to 97% of respondees – is strategic thinking. Good strategy is at the core of any organization’s success, and it’s important to understand the strategy myths that may be holding your team back from reaching greater levels of success.

Myth #1: Strategy comes from somebody else.

“We get our strategy from the brand team/upper management.” This is a common refrain when managers in other functional areas are asked who develops strategy. It’s also wrong. The strategy that you execute should be your own strategy. Why? Because each group’s resources are going to be different. For instance, the sales team has different resources – time, talent and budget – than the marketing team, the IT team or the HR team. How they allocate those resources determines their real-world strategy. It’s important to understand company, product and other functional group strategies to ensure that your strategies are in alignment. However, their strategies are not a replacement for your strategies.

Myth Buster: Identify the corporate strategies, product strategies, functional group strategies and your strategies, and seek alignment.

Myth #2: Strategy is a once-a-year process.

In a recent webinar presented to more than 300 CEOs entitled, “Is Your Organization Strategic?” the question was posed: “How often do you and your team meet to update your strategies?” The percentage of CEOs who meet with their teams to assess and calibrate strategies more frequently than four times a year is only 16.9%, with nearly 50% indicating their teams meet once per year or “we don’t meet at all to discuss strategy.”

A study of more than 200 large companies showed that the number one driver of revenue growth is the reallocation of resources throughout the year from underperforming areas to areas with greater potential. Strategy is the primary vehicle for making these vital resource reallocation decisions, but as the survey showed, most leaders aren’t putting themselves or their teams in a position to succeed. If strategy in your organization is an annual event, you will not achieve sustained success.

Myth Buster: Conduct a monthly strategy tune-up when groups at all levels meet for one to two hours to review and calibrate their strategies.

Myth #3: Execution of strategy is more important than the strategy itself.

A landmark 25-year study of 750 bankruptcies showed that the number one cause of bankruptcy was flawed strategy, not poor execution. You can have the most skilled driver and highest-performance Ferrari in the world (great execution), but if you’re driving that Ferrari on a road headed over a cliff (poor strategic direction) – you’re finished.

A sure sign of a needlessly myopic view is that everything is an “either or,” rather than allowing for “and.” Strategy and execution are both important, but make no mistake: All great businesses begin with an insightful strategy.

Myth Buster: Take time to create differentiated strategy built on insights that lead to unique customer value, and then shape an execution plan that includes roles, responsibilities, communication vehicles, time frames and metrics.

Myth #4: Strategy is about being better than the competition.

Your products and services are not better than those of your competitors. Why? Because “better” is subjective. Is blueberry pie better than banana cream pie? It depends who you ask. “Is our product better than the competitor’s product?” is the wrong question. The real question is, “How is our product different than the competitor’s product in ways that customers value?”

Attempting to be better than the competition leads to a race of “best practices,” which results in competitive convergence. Doing the same things in the same ways as competitors, only trying to do them a little faster or better, blurs the line of value between your company and competitors. Remember that competitive advantage is defined as “providing superior value to customers” – not “beating the competition by being better.”

Myth Buster: Identify your differentiated value to specific customer groups by writing out your value proposition in one sentence.

Myth #5: Strategy is the same as mission, vision or goals.

Since strategy is an abstract concept, it often is interchanged with the terms vision, mission and goals. How many times have you seen or heard a strategy that is “to be #1,” “to be the market leader,” or “to become the premier provider of…?” Mission is your current purpose, and vision is your future purpose (or aspirational end game). Goals are what you are trying to achieve, and strategy is how you will allocate resources to achieve your goals.

Misusing business terms on a regular basis is like a physicist randomly interchanging an element’s chemical structure from the Periodic Table. You can say that the chemical structure of hydrogen is the chemical structure for gold, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct. Starting with an inexact statement of strategy will derail all of the other aspects of your planning and turn your business into the equivalent of the grammar school volcano science project with red-dyed vinegar and too much baking soda.

Myth Buster: Clearly distinguish your goals, strategies, mission and vision from one another.

If left unchecked, strategy myths can cause you and your business to fail. Arm your team with the strategy myth busters, and your business will soar higher than a pigeon with a belly full of uncooked rice.

Rich Horwath is a New York Times bestselling author on strategy, including his most recent book, StrategyMan vs. The Anti-Strategy Squad: Using Strategic Thinking to Defeat Bad Strategy and Save Your Plan. As CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute, he has helped more than 100,000 managers develop their strategy skills through live workshops and virtual training programs. Horwath is a strategy facilitator, keynote speaker, and creator of more than 200 resources on strategic thinking.

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