Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms“Not miscalculation, bad strategy is the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy.” Richard Rumelt—Good Strategy/Bad Strategy


“Our strategy is to be more profitable than our competitors.”

“Our strategy is to grow from 10,000 to 100,000 customers in the next three years.”

“Our strategy is to be the leading provider of (insert your category) to the (insert your market) by (insert your year).

“Our strategy is to grow.”

“The absence of a strategy for us is actually a strategy.”

Sadly, I’m not making these quotes up. I was present for each of these utterances from otherwise intelligent senior executives. The statements underscore the widespread misunderstanding of what strategy is coupled with little idea how to actually generate one that’s coherent and legitimate.

Fluff statements don’t define a coherent strategy.

The absence of a strategy is…well, a strategy to flail and fail.

Growth is not a strategy.

And big, lofty goals don’t define or describe a strategy. In the meeting where the customer count went from 10,000 to 100,000, it was like a bidding war to see which executive could propose the most outlandish number.

“20,000, you’re thinking too small,” crowed one executive. “It should be 50,000.”

“50,000, we’ve got to go big or go home. It’s 100,000,” suggested the Managing Director. “Are we agreed that this is our strategy,” he asked, rhetorically as the bidding war came to an end.

One senior manager courageously suggested that the customer count didn’t define a strategy. He was verbally beaten down, run over and ground up by the number-charged crowd.

Rumelt’s Kernel of a Strategy:

Rumelt’s treatment on good strategy is both simple and elegant. He suggests focusing on developing the kernel of a strategy.

The Diagnosis answers very clearly, “What’s going on here?” Getting to a clear answer to this question involves considerable work in sorting through the emotions and opinions and to focus on both internal and external realities. You’re after clear statements of the truth.

The Guiding Philosophy frames: “What are we going to do about it?” It clarifies the opportunity, amplifies the firm’s key leverage points and sets bounds the field of play. It’s this absence of a guiding philosophy that is most common and most fatal to a firm’s strategic thinking and actions. Without a clear, sound guiding philosophy, every option is on the table. The goal of strategy is to take all but the essential options for success off the table.

The Coherent Actions are those steps or initiatives (and progress measures) the firm agrees to take to bring the guiding philosophy to life. Another leading strategy thinker, George Day, describes this as: “identifying a series of integrated actions to pursue competitive advantage.” The operative word is “integrated.”

What’s not apparent (although it is implied) in his “kernel” approach is the incredible hard work—the heavy lifting of debating and deciding and selecting. It’s some of the hardest brain work you’ll ever do, and the complexity is compounded by the essential need for a group of high-powered people to move beyond ego and bias to a place that is more honest and objective. That last point, the group dynamic, is in my experience, the most difficult part of the process for a book’s worth of reasons.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In most of our firms and even in our public matters of state, we’re letting our leaders and our executive teams off the hook on the hard work of cultivating and articulating coherent strategies. Don’t settle for the platitudes and lofty goals and fluff-statements—they’re not strategies, they’re the result of a lazy approach to a critical topic. Whether you’re sitting at the top of the food chain or operating from somewhere in the middle, it’s essential to ask and push for clear, coherent answers to the hard questions.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.