What Is Strategy? Why It’s More Than a To-Do List

Most people treat strategy like it’s to-do list. And that’s how businesses find themselves executing on too many competing priorities. Learn more on how to create a strategy on ThinkGrowth.org: https://hubs.ly/H09RNnF0. Or read more from Steve Blank on startups at steveblank.com.


As the VP of marketing, I had it all figured out. I could execute on any marketing plan sales handed to me – no matter how complex.

So when my CEO called me into his office to discuss our strategy for the next 18 months, I was ready to get started on the next big thing.

He outlined two complex plans, and asked, “Can you pull off both?”

I reassured him, “Yeah, of course we can do that!”

He paused for long, agonizing minute, and then the yelling began:

“Executing both of these strategies would put us out of business. You don’t have a clue about what the purpose of marketing is because all you’re doing is executing a series of tasks like they’re like a big to-do list.”

“You’re dangerous as the head of marketing.”

While the case can be made that my CEO was a jerk, he did challenge me:

I was doing a lot of marketing “things” but why was I doing them?

The truth is … most companies don’t have a strategy. They view strategy as a set of performance metrics and goals.

But strategy doesn’t just define what you do … it’s as much about what you don’t do.

According to Richard Rumelt, a strategy requires three key elements:

First .. A diagnosis that defines the challenge. It’s a realistic understanding of the current state of the business and market.

Second… A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. A policy directs action while also ruling out other approaches.

And third … it’s a set of coherent actions to accomplish the policy. This is how you overcome the complexity and conflict that plagues most companies.

So, let’s say an ecommerce company finds that its monthly sales are falling.

They decide to focus on improving the average cart price.

They make a plan to set a dollar threshold for free shipping and add a related items module to product pages.

While simple, the example defines the problem, clarifies direction, and outlines the key action.

Marketing’s role is to help accomplish the strategy — to come up with tactical executions and test hypotheses. But the strategy is the north star — it’s the foundation for building a plan that is both focused and achievable.

Inspired by Strategy Is Not a To-Do List by Steve Blank on ThinkGrowth.org.

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