The Meaning of Strategic

In Strategic Planning by Shelli Bischoff

I am always amazed how frequently the word “strategic” is used – especially when it is used to describe plans, decisions, and actions that actually aren’t very strategic! In part, this happens because strategic is a buzzword. But, it also seems that many people don’t really know what the term means.

The adjective strategic comes from the noun strategy: the deployment of resources towards a defined end. It derives from the military and originally referred to the deployment of troops to engage an enemy (In fact, its Greek derivation, “strategia” means generalship).

For our organizations and agencies, in the simplest terms strategic refers to making deliberate decisions, based on the context within which you operate (i.e., those forces and factors that define your operating environment).

In our strategic planning sessions, I often quote two noted authors and strategic planning experts to illustrate the meaning of strategic:

“Strategic planning is a disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, what it does and why it does it.” (John Bryson)

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” (Michael Porter)

Being more strategic is a key to any organizational success. How an organization or agency allocates resources to get the job done, to achieve results towards mission, is everything! Many rely upon board member opinion (in a nonprofit organization) or stakeholder input (in a public agency) to set strategic vision. Unfortunately this reliance may not yield the best strategies – whether because of incomplete information, bias in perspective, or conflicting agendas.

Let’s further explore what being strategic really means in our organizations and agencies:

  • Strategic means focusing on the organization as a whole; across all divisions, units, or programs. Having several different strategic plans for one organization is by definition not strategic! Also, strategic decisions must come from the top – from those people whose responsibility it is to see the whole and how the entire enterprise contributes to mission, purpose, and impact. This does not mean that there can’t be input from staff, but recognize the difference between opinions and perceptions and strategic thinking.
  • Strategic implies directional decisions. As such, it also implies that we know what the ends are, or else we can’t move towards those ends—in a specific direction. Strategy implies the decisions about the best way to move in a particular direction towards an end.
  • There can only be one best or most appropriate strategy given conditions, capacity, situation, competition, values etc. Remember, strategy is the overall guidance for how you are going to proceed. It is not the tactics. Strategic is the opposite of tactical. Tactics are the activities or steps you will take to implement strategy. However, if you don’t define strategy (towards a specific end or “win”), any activity is the right activity.
  • Strategic requires long-term thinking. It keeps the immediate and operational within the context of the bigger picture. Remember, not all decisions and discussions need to be strategic. Distinguish between the strategic and the operational.
  • Strategic is deliberate. Being strategic allows you to be more proactive; defining your destiny rather than having it defined for you. Thus, it is the opposite of opportunistic. This doesn’t mean you don’t take advantage of opportunities that arise; but that your strategy defines which opportunities are most useful towards your desired ends and which opportunities are distractions.

Being strategic is a way of thinking and operating. Holding an annual strategic planning session or having a strategic plan does not necessarily make you strategic. The processes and the plans are only tools. Use the guidelines above to push your thinking to a more strategic level.

Can you define how your organization or agency is being strategic? What will it take to be more strategic?

For more information see From Strategic Planning to Positioning.