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Can You Say What Your Strategy Essay

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It’s a dirty little secret: Most executives cannot articulate the objective, scope, and advantage of their business in a simple statement. If they can’t, neither can anyone else.

Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?
by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad

Reprint R0804E

It’s a dirty little secret: Most executives cannot articulate the objective, scope, and advantage of their business in a simple statement. If they can’t, neither can anyone else.

Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?
by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad

COPYRIGHT © 2008 HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PUBLISHING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Can you summarize your company’s strategy in 35 words or less? If so, would your colleagues put it the same way? It is our experience that very few executives can honestly answer these simple questions in the affirmative. And the companies that those executives work for are often the most successful in their industry. One is Edward Jones, a St. Louis–based brokerage firm with which one of us has been involved for more than 10 years. The fourth-largest brokerage in the United States, Jones has quadrupled its market share during the past two decades, has consistently outperformed its rivals in terms of ROI through bull and bear markets, and has been a fixture on Fortune’s list of the top companies to work for. It’s a safe bet that just about every one of its 37,000 employees could express the company’s succinct strategy statement: Jones aims to “grow to 17,000 financial advisers by 2012 [from about 10,000 today] by offering trusted and convenient face-to-face financial advice to conservative individual investors who delegate their finanharvard business review • april 2008

cial decisions, through a national network of one-financial-adviser offices.” Conversely, companies that don’t have a simple and clear statement of strategy are likely to fall into the sorry category of those that have failed to execute their strategy or, worse, those that never even had one. In an astonishing number of organizations, executives, frontline employees, and all those in between are frustrated because no clear strategy exists for the company or its lines of business. The kinds of complaints that abound in such firms include: • “I try for months to get an initiative off the ground, and then it is shut down because ‘it doesn’t fit the strategy.’ Why didn’t anyone tell me that at the beginning?” • “I don’t know whether I should be pursuing this market opportunity. I get mixed signals from the powers that be.” • “Why are we bidding on this customer’s business again? We lost it last year, and I thought we agreed then not to waste our time chasing the contract!” page 1

Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?

David J. Collis ([email protected]) is an adjunct professor in the strategy unit of Harvard Business School in Boston and the author of several books on corporate strategy. He has studied and consulted to Edward Jones, the brokerage that is the main example in this article, and has taught in the firm’s management-development program. Michael G. Rukstad was a senior research fellow at Harvard Business School, where he taught for many years until his untimely death in 2006.

• “Should I cut the price for this customer? I don’t know if we would be better off winning the deal at a lower price or just losing the business.” Leaders of firms are mystified when what they thought was a beautifully crafted strategy is never implemented. They assume that the initiatives described in the voluminous documentation that emerges from an annual budget or a strategic-planning process will ensure competitive success. They fail to appreciate the necessity of having a simple, clear, succinct strategy statement that everyone can internalize and use as a guiding light for making difficult choices. Think of a major business as a mound of 10,000 iron filings, each one representing an employee. If you scoop up that many filings and drop them onto a piece of paper, they’ll be pointing in every direction. It will be a big mess: 10,000 smart people working hard and making what they think are the right decisions for the company—but with the net result of confusion. Engineers in the R&D department are creating a product with “must have” features for which (as the marketing group could have told them) customers will not pay; the sales force is selling customers on quick turnaround times and customized offerings even though the manufacturing group has just invested in equipment designed for long production runs; and so on. If you pass a magnet over those filings, what happens? They line up. Similarly, a well-understood statement of strategy aligns behavior within the business. It allows everyone in the organization to make individual choices that reinforce one another, rendering those 10,000 employees exponentially more effective. What goes into a good statement of strategy? Michael Porter’s seminal article “What Is Strategy?” (HBR November–December 1996) lays out the characteristics of strategy in a conceptual fashion, conveying the essence of strategic choices and distinguishing them from the relentless but competitively fruitless search for operational efficiency. However, we have found in our work both with executives and with students that Porter’s article does not answer the more basic question of how to describe a particular firm’s strategy. It is a dirty little secret that most executives don’t actually know what all the elements of

a strategy statement are, which makes it impossible for them to develop one. With a clear definition, though, two things happen: First, formulation becomes infinitely easier because executives know what they are trying to create. Second, implementation becomes much simpler because the strategy’s essence can be readily communicated and easily internalized by everyone in the organization.

Elements of a Strategy Statement
The late Mike Rukstad, who contributed enormously to this article, identified three critical components of a good strategy statement— objective, scope, and advantage—and rightly believed that executives should be forced to be crystal clear about them. These elements are a simple yet sufficient list for any strategy (whether business or military) that addresses competitive interaction over unbounded terrain. Any strategy statement must begin with a definition of the ends that the strategy is designed to achieve. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” is the appropriate maxim here. If a nation has an unclear sense of what it seeks to achieve from a military campaign, how can it have a hope of attaining its goal? The definition of the objective should include not only an end point but also a time frame for reaching it. A strategy to get U.S. troops out of Iraq at some distant point in the future would be very different from a strategy to bring them home within two years. Since most firms compete in a more or less unbounded landscape, it is also crucial to define the scope, or domain, of the business: the part of the landscape in which the firm will operate. What are ...

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