Strategic planning is an essential skill for any marketer. Big companies tend to go overboard, sometimes spending too much time planning every detail of a course of action, but in smaller businesses we tend to commit the opposite sin: We just shoot from the hip.
How can we be more strategic in our decision-making without getting bogged down in complex planning?
There’s a simple way to make strategy a part of every decision you make, and it’s as easy as realizing you’re already making strategic decisions about things in your everyday life, all the time.
It might feel like we’re just acting on impulse, but human beings are fundamentally strategic animals. For all our emotions, urges, and ambitions, it’s our natural tendency to think strategically that really guides our actions and decision-making. Strategy is more than a tool or skill; it’s an essential part of how we view the world, and whether we realize it or not we’re constantly acting out complex, deliberate strategies not just in business and marketing, but in our normal lives too.
The “Triple A” strategic planning framework
There are so many convoluted and wrong-headed definitions of strategy out there, so let me give you the simplest and best one: A strategy is simply an approach, based on analysis, to reaching a goal.
We separate the idea of strategy from the idea of tactics because tactics are the coherent actions we take based on our strategy.
Does that make sense?
Taken together, these three elements — analysis, approach, and action — make up a strategic framework, which is just a kind of template for getting us through a challenge.
I call this the “Triple A” framework, and it’s incredibly useful for when you feel overwhelmed by a big decision, in business or in life. It’s basically just asking yourself What’s the real problem here? What’s the best general approach to solving it? And based on that approach, what are the specific actions required to arrive at the solution?
Strategy vs. tactics
If we think about strategy this way, it’s easy to see just how many of our decisions that we thought were based on common sense or preference are actually deeply strategic.
Here are some examples:
If you decide that animals shouldn’t suffer, you might conclude that the best general approach to solving animal suffering is to do no harm to them. Therefore, your strategy for lessening the problem of animal suffering is to do no harm to animals. The tactics you might employ are to become vegetarian, to stop wearing leather, or to attend animal rights protests.
If you want to lose weight you might read books about contemporary diets (itself a strategy) and come to the conclusion that wheat and processed agriculture is making it difficult for you to achieve your goals. Thus you might adopt something like the paleo diet as your strategy for shedding those unwanted pounds. At that point your tactics might be tracking your nutrient macros, eating lots of “good” fats, and finding a substitute for bread. (PSA: There’s no substitute for bread.)
Of course going paleo might be a nested strategy within a larger project — like, say, to get into the best shape of your life — stemming from a more complex analysis of your situation. Here, exercise requires its own strategic approach, so now maybe you’re in Crossfit four days a week, signing up for an accountability challenge, and treating yourself to cool workout outfits to keep you motivated.
Everyday strategic planning
There are an infinite number of strategic approaches to an infinite number of everyday challenges, big and small.
Is money tight? You might decide you have to cut costs, which means only buying things that are on sale, not eating out, and postponing vacations. Alternately you might decide the best way out of your situation is to earn more money, so you ask for a promotion, get a second job, or start a side hustle.
Unhappy in your relationship? You might come to the conclusion that you and your partner need to communicate better, and so you start seeing a therapist, reading books on getting along better, and scheduling date nights.
Alternately you might conclude that relationships are too much work, and so you decide to leave your partner, get a cat, and take up yoga. Whether you’re successful or not is irrelevant; finding happiness without a partner is your strategy for increasing your sense of harmony and well-being based on your analysis that relationships are too much work.
Popular strategies for achieving various things in life are often distilled into catchphrases. You’ve heard the phrase “Happy wife, happy life?” That’s a strategy. “Don’t ask don’t tell?” A strategy. “You have to spend money to make money?” Strategy.
It’s literally everywhere.
Even dogs are strategic. I have a friend who owns a Boston Terrier named Tina who is obsessed with food. All she wants to do is eat, as much and as often as she can. Tina’s (limited but very effective) strategy for accomplishing this is to actively seek out and capitalize on as many eating opportunities as possible.
Tina’s tactics are endless, and include listening vigilantly for the sound of her kibble container, being territorial about her food, whining and begging, eating so fast she needs to have a special bowl made like a maze to slow her down so she doesn’t barf, eating whatever she can find outside (including garbage), doing tricks for treats, and stealing food from her slower-witted brother, Frank.
Strategy is a doing word
Unfortunately, being hardwired for strategy doesn’t mean that we’re all naturally good at strategy, not in the active sense anyway. Most of us don’t want to have to think so much about the best way to save for retirement or make Thanksgiving dinner. We just kind of want to get in the kitchen and do the parts we enjoy, and if the potatoes are lumpy or the turkey is a bit dry who cares, so long as it all basically comes out at the same time.
Or sometimes we’d rather just be told what the best course of action is (usually based on someone else working through the analysis and approach parts). This is the great promise of the Internet, where best practices and a step-by-step guide to anything is just a YouTube search away. Let someone else figure it out! I’ll just do what seems like the easiest thing.
Which is, itself, a strategy.
We tend to think of strategy as a noun (and I’ve been using it that way here) but it’s useful to think of strategy in a more active way, sometimes. Instead of “coming up with” a strategy, or “working out” a strategy, I like to think of “doing” strategy.
Doing strategy implies a more creative act, and in fact this is exactly why the work of strategy requires creativity: To do strategy is to come up with novel or alternative solutions to a problem based on a more complex understanding of that problem. It’s accepting that there might be a best guess, or an established way, but thinking through analysis, approach, and action anyway, to discover the most ideal solution given what’s known.
Summing it up
You can see how the strategic planner’s job can get hideously complex. (And why we’re often accused of being “overthinkers.”)
Luckily for everyone some of us love this process, and it feels great to be able to help a business owner or manager through a strategic solution to a problem that had previously seemed inscrutable. But you don’t have to be a strategic planner to benefit from a little bit of strategic thinking. Once you understand the fundamental importance of strategy, you can use simple tools like the “Triple A” framework to break down strategic decision-making into its component parts of analysis, approach, and action.