What is Your Strategy, In a Sentence?

What is Your Strategy, In a Sentence?

2020 was a challenging year. By March, we had thrown all of our plans away and were adjusting to a new environment. Having made it through 2020, we now have entered 2021. What awaits? From what I hear, we are going to be living with COVID for a while, regardless of the vaccine. How long who knows, but forecasts I hear are Q3 or Q4. Thus, we are in a Groundhog Day for effectively another year. So, what is your strategy for 2021 and beyond? And more importantly, do your employees clearly understand your strategy? Can they state it in a single sentence?

In discussions with many companies, and ignoring those that respond with a blank stare, I hear everything across the spectrum from “We have a detailed strategic plan” to “We don’t really have a strategy.” Often what I hear are tactics, but mostly hope. But as Dr. Akande famously said, “Hope is not a strategy.” So, I hope all of you have your strategies planned for 2021 and beyond.

If you do, I hope it is written down, because as Emmitt Smith said, “It’s only a dream until you write it down, and then it becomes a goal.” So, assuming you have your strategy, and it is written down, you need to be able to articulate it in one sentence.

Why one sentence? Because most of those that have strategies don’t provide a crisp, clear answer in a single sentence (which may be the reason so many people in organizations complain about a crisis of clarity).

Patrick Lencioni’s Four Disciplines of the Advantage are even more key today. The Four Disciplines are:

  • Discipline 1: Build a Cohesive Leadership Team
  • Discipline 2: Create Clarity
  • Discipline 3: Over-Communicate Clarity
  • Discipline 4: Reinforce Clarity

In a time with so much uncertainty, the key to success is being able to adapt quickly to market conditions and pivot where needed. However, if your employees don’t know your strategy with clarity when the environment changes, they will be seeking input from above as to how to respond. Slowing decision making increases the opportunity for you to adapt too slowly and suffer from increased losses or missing out on new opportunities.

So, a one-sentence strategy achieves Discipline 2. Furthermore, if there is clarity, then it can be easily communicated and understood. With Discipline 3, over-communicating clarity, everyone in the organization should know the strategy and state it in the same way. With clarity and focus across the organization, it is more likely that the organization can reach its goals as everyone will understand if something fits with the strategy.

In addition, it needs to be a sentence because a single sentence has real power. As Clare Booth Luce once told John F. Kennedy in 1962, “a great man is one sentence.” His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. For example, “He preserved the union and freed the slaves,” doesn’t need explaining that it was Abraham Lincoln. Luce was telling Kennedy to concentrate, to know the great themes and demands of his time, and focus on them. It was good advice. When imperatives are clear and met, you get quite a sentence.

While these are legacy sentences and focus on the past, the same logic can apply to strategy, which is focused on the future. Thus, a great strategy is a sentence.

So how do you do it?

Roger Martin, in his book, Playing To Win, proposed a strategic framework based on five key questions:

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. Where will we play?
  3. How will we win?
  4. What capabilities do we need?
  5. What management systems must we have?

However, to state your strategy in a sentence, you just need to focus on the first three questions: winning aspiration, where to play, and how to win. With that structure, you get the format:

Achieve [Winning Aspiration] in [Where to Play] by [How to Win].

Breaking it down:

  • Winning Aspiration. The winning aspiration needs to describe a clear win that is future-oriented, ambitious, specific (thus measurable), contains a competitive element, and avoids a play-to-play goal.
  • Where to Play. The Where to Play needs some element of market segmentation, you satisfy the entire market.
  • How to Win. The How to Win needs to capture your organization’s unique and defensible value proposition and your competitive advantage.

Here are some examples:

  • We want to lead the U.S. luxury performance sedan segment by offering higher quality and competitive design for one-third less.
  • We want to have a top-ranked 5-star property in every market that will support a luxury hotel by providing a home-away-from-home, office-away-from-office experience.
  • We want to capture the short-haul air travel market with high-frequency flights and efficient service to secondary airports at a price that rivals driving.

Hopefully, you didn’t need to be told “Lexus,” “Four Seasons,” or “Southwest Airlines.”

So, get with your leadership team and develop your one-sentence strategy. Once you have all agreed on it, ensure it has clarity. Then, as Lencioni says, over-communicate it to your firm, customers, suppliers, etc. With everyone focused on the same goal, you are more likely to achieve it!


Copyright (c) 2021, Marc A. Borrelli


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