What’s your strategy?

“So, what’s your strategy?” It’s a question many would-be entrepreneurs are likely to be asked. After all, every business needs a strategy, right? I wonder how many people that ask the question truly understand what strategy is. The reality is that most new enterprises probably have a strategy but don’t perceive it as such. They may think strategy is the private playground of large multinationals.

Let me first say what strategy is not. A vision or mission statement is not a strategy. “We’re going to provide the best value motor repair service in Lincolnshire.” That’s an aspiration, not a strategy. How about this: “Whilst our competitors focus on family holidays, we’re going to concentrate on the business traveller.” Closer, but that’s still not strategy. That’s defining a target market.

Here’s an example of a business strategy. Consider a newly opened restaurant in a small village comprising of around twenty residences. The hamlet is five miles away from a town with around 25,000 inhabitants. To attract people from the town to eat at her restaurant, the owner enlists her retired father to act as a free taxi service to the restaurant for all of the town’s inhabitants. Each party that makes a reservation will have the option of being collected and returned for free.

What makes that scenario a strategy? The answer is simple. It describes a solution to a challenge. The challenge is twofold. Firstly, the village contains only twenty homes and precious little through traffic. No restaurant could survive on that customer base. Secondly, taxi fares nowadays are often prohibitive and few people like being the alcohol abstaining driver. As a slight aside, the up-sell of having an entire party of alcohol drinkers probably offsets the cost of the fuel for Dad’s taxi.

Many business professionals seem to have lost sight of what strategy is all about. Historically, the place for strategy was on the battlefield. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable task of overpowering a 5,000 strong army with just 600 men, the General devised an ingenious strategy to take his adversary by surprise. They prevailed against all odds. His solution was a strategy because there was a problem to be solved – his army was drastically outnumbered. Suppose he instead announced his battle cry: “guided by the tenacity and courage of our legendary ancestors, make every one of them feel the force of not one man, but ten!” It would be a laudable attempt at rousing his troops, not wholly dissimilar to the business mission statement of today’s world. It’s not a strategy, however.

So if you ever encounter someone telling you to think strategy, unless there is a clear and specific challenge to be overcome, it really isn’t a strategy you need at all.

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