So I’ve been reading a slew of books about strategy. Why? well, mostly because I feel like there’s this gap between academic strategy (Porter, Mintzberg, et al) and stuff I do all day as a so-called “strategist.” 

One of the things that struck me as I read Communicating Strategy by Phil Jones is that strategy has become… Well, not a buzz word, but a word that has been bent and shaped to mean almost anything. It’s a noun, verb, adjective and adverb all at once, meaning about a dozen different things. It’s like when the Smurfs used to talk about how they were going to Smurfs that Smurf smurfily (that sentence is making my spell check fidget). For some people, a strategy is a plan. For some it’s a means of looking at things from a slightly higher perspective. For others is about a process of making choices. And when two or more people get in a room to talk about strategy, I’ll lay odds that unless they know each other well, they are each talking about strategy in a different way, which is problematic to say the least.

But I’ve been thinking about it in two ways that I havent seen in the literature yet. Strategy as metaphor and strategy as system.

I’ll talk more about strategy as metaphor some other time because I’d like to talk about strategy as a system here tonight (it’s 11:15pm in Philly and I should be getting some sleep for the CBI Life Sciences CRM forum. If you’re here, find me! I’ll be twittering the whole thing, probably).

What do I mean by strategy as a system? In many respects, what a company does and does well is less a function of rational/premeditated decision making and more a function of it’s culture and practices. I mean, if IBM made candy, it’s inherent in their nature of who they are and how they like to do things (which attracts people who also like to think that way, thus perpetuating the culture) that would lead them pretty quickly to be selling enterprise-wide candy solutions to multinational companies. It’s in their blood, so to speak.

If that’s true, you can’t change a companies strategy by dropping a new proposal on them and saying “that’s how we’re gonna do it from now on” unless it’s already pretty close to how the culture already thinks. Apples strategy will never be to corner the market on enterprise computing (I mean, how many years has the iPhone been out? How is it that BlackBerrys still do a better job of Exchange integration? Because Apple doesn’t care about that market), just as IBM fails almost every time it tries to appeal to consumers. Again, it’s in the blood.

So if you want to change a companies strategy, you have to change the system that created (grew organically, more than likely) the old strategy. This means that strategy shift occurs because you can successfully define and articulate answers to the following four questions:

What have you systematically been doing to get yourself here?
What part of the system will you change?
How does that change affect the system?
Where will this changed system go?

Yu got to “here” somehow. And even if you didn’t have a specific strategy in mind, your lack of strategy is a strategy none the less and here you are. So what strategy ended up getting you here? 

What changed since the last time you had a strategy? Do you have more resources or constraints now? Did you get good at something recently that you can build on? What will you add, remove or edit to the system? New hire? New skill sets? New vendor? New distribution model? New audience? New market? What’s changing?

Since you’re now making conscious choices about what you’re changing in the system, how do you expect these changes to affect the system? What will you be able to accomplish that you weren’t before? What’s the value you want to get out of these changes?

If strategy can be thought of as a means of getting to where you want to go, knowing your resources and limitations is only a part of the battle. Understanding the competitive landscape is only part of the battle. A large part is how you can adjust to the new strategy, and that happens at a cultural level. If every employee can’t describe your strategy, what strategy are they pursuing?

So that’s what I was thinking about.

As per usual, comments are open and you should twitter me, even if it’s to tell me you think I’m nuts and should get more sleep.