Overusing “Strategy” and “Strategic” Harms Your Business Performance – by Graham Kenny

Managers use the terms, “strategy” and “strategic” a surprisingly large number of times and in a wide variety of contexts.  We hear terms like “HR strategy” or “strategic marketing.” It pops up everywhere, with “IT strategic plans,” “digital engagement strategies” and “strategic procurement.” It’s become commonplace – and overused.

The consequence of this, as managers attest, is that it makes the terms meaningless. But the impacts go even deeper. It blurs the lines between what is genuinely strategic and what is clearly operational. Further, it leads organizations to focus on issues which aren’t core to their business success. This impacts their business performance.

To find out how this plays out let’s hear from three executives each with a story to tell regarding the overuse of “strategy” and “strategic.” I provide some remedies regarding what you might do to correct the situation.

“Strategy” for a Specific Purpose

Although not a lawyer himself, Ken is CEO of a law firm that acts for individuals affected by workplace issues such as on-the-job injuries and unfair dismissal. The practice has offices in many States. I asked him about the use of the terms, “strategy” and “strategic” in his organization. “Are these terms used much in the firm?”

“They sure are,” he said. “I hear ‘recruitment strategy’, ‘succession strategy,’ and ‘learning and development strategy’. It’s become a plague. All staff hear from HR these days, but other departments too, is ‘strategy this’ and ‘strategic that.’ The terms are starting to lose their meaning.”

“Is that a problem?” I asked.

“Certainly,” he said. “It means that when we want to talk about strategy for the business, staff are confused. The result is we’re failing to distinguish between what’s significant for the business and what’s simply an implementation plan.”

Remedy – wherever possible drop “strategy” and “strategic.” Your organization has no doubt stopped using unfavorable and dysfunctional terms – around race and gender, for example. So, you know it’s possible to wind back the overuse of the terms, “strategy” and “strategic.” Take the lead and only use the term “strategy” when you’re talking about the overarching positioning of your business.

“Strategy” Belongs at the Organization or Business Unit Level

Lynda heads a company that provides a web content management system to help users create, manage, and modify content on their websites. I asked her, “does your firm use the term ‘HR strategy’?”

“It does,” she said, “but we’ve gotten into the habit of applying ‘strategy’ to other functions as well, including Marketing, Sales and Finance.”

She explained that this was a problem in that it reduced staff engagement. “Staff are over it,” she said. “When they hear ‘strategy’ their eyes glaze over. They switch off. It’s often used to elevate a speaker’s status.” The problem with this overuse, she explained, is that it disengages staff producing “confusion, competing priorities and a fracturing of focus.”

If you want to confuse yourself and your staff, start talking about “strategy” for individual functions, like HR, Accounting and Manufacturing. In no time at all, the word “strategy” will become meaningless.

Business strategy exists at the organization level – or the business unit/division level in a diversified firm such as General Electric (GE).

Remedy – apply “strategy” to the organization not to functions. Undertake a review of the business function plans that carry “strategic” in your organization. Note when the term is out of place. Start by striking “strategic” out wherever you can.

One “Strategic” Plan per Organization or Business Unit

Sumit heads up early-stage business development for a company that provides clinical trial and drug development consulting services in the biotech sector globally. I asked him about the overuse of the term “strategic” on plans within the company and what effect that has.

“’Strategic’ gets attached to numerous plans here, unfortunately,” he said. “And it’s confusing. It also affects performance.” I asked him did he have any favourites. Sumit replied, “IT strategic plan.” He went on to explain that, while IT was very important to the business, its role was operational. “IT makes an operational plan to implement the company’s strategic plan.” He also explained how the idea of labelling IT’s plan “strategic” comes from the computer community which likes to use the term to raise the profession’s importance among other managers.

He’s right about an “IT strategic plan” being operational as this definition plucked from the internet demonstrates – “a document that details the comprehensive technology-enabled business management processes an organization uses to guide operations.”

Remedy – Don’t put “strategic” on operational plans. Recognize that functions within an organization are there to execute the strategy of the organization. Functions don’t have strategies, they have plans – operational plans. Thus, an organization has an employee strategy focusing on the strategic factors important to attracting, retaining and motivating staff. HR plays a fundamental role in designing this. But it doesn’t have an HR strategy. It has an HR plan. This focuses on the actions required to execute the organization’s strategy for employees.

So, instead of HR strategy try employee/people/staff strategy. Instead of marketing strategy try customer/client/passenger/patient strategy – whatever description is appropriate to your industry. Then shift to HR plan and marketing plan. The difference in your managers’ thinking, discussions and decision making will be profound.

Language Is Pivotal to Success

It’s important that you don’t complicate things. That can only lead to misunderstanding, confusion and sub-par performance. Keep it simple.

The takeaway here is that your organization has a “strategy” to meet its objectives and achieve competitive advantage. Functions within your organization have “operational plans” to deliver that strategy.

Not overusing “strategy” and “strategic” will shift the thinking in your organization – in senior executives, managers and staff. It will also boost engagement as your key stakeholders will lean in rather than tune out. Poor use of the terms “strategy” and “strategic” disengages employees and other stakeholders to such an extent that they switch off.

You don’t want that.


Author – Graham Kenny

About the author

Graham Kenny is CEO of Strategic Factors and author of the book Strategy Discovery.  He is a recognized expert in strategy and performance measurement who helps managers, executives, and boards create successful organizations in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. He is a regular author in the Harvard Business Review and has been a professor of management in universities in the U.S., and Canada. You can connect to or follow him on LinkedIn.