My Boycott on Strategy (Part 1)

Strategy is the latest word to be stricken from my vocabulary.

‘Strategy’ — especially in marketing — is invoked at random by anyone who wants an easy way to sound like they know what they’re talking about. We have a name for words like this:

Buzz words.

A buzz word, according to Dictionary.com, is “a word or phrase, often sounding authoritative or technical, that is a vogue term in a particular profession.” At some point, buzz words are used ad nauseam until they carry no meaning at all. They are over-applied and misspoken until they become an impotent series of sounds passing through both ears and falling worthlessly to the ground.

‘Strategy’ in marketing, has become a meaningless buzz word.

But, why? Why have marketers been so eager to use and abuse this word?

All marketers start their careers toiling away at the tactical level, implementing plans set forth by company leadership. They hope to display leadership potential, take on leadership responsibility and one day play leadership roles. The easiest way to attempt this is to use leadership language, even without fully understanding it. This is called aspirational behavior. We abuse the term ‘strategy’ because we desperately desire to participate at a higher level than our job descriptions allow.

Aspirational behavior is natural and universally human. We do it as children learning from our parents. We do it as consumers, emulating the lifestyles of the tax bracket above our own. We mimic those whose stations we desire. We practice their behaviors, usually failing to some degree, and eventually gain competence over time.

This cycle of aspirational behavior (practice, fail, learn) holds different consequences in different applications. In fashion, for example, styles and color palettes originate with the high-priced elite and eventually flow down the socio-economic ladder. Each season’s stuff gets adopted by the unwashed masses, misused and degraded compared to high-fashion standards, and quickly becomes no longer elite. To cope with the cycle, fashion designers must churn out new stuff every season. Basically, when a person of lower social standing purchases a high-fashion purse, it costs that person $5000 and it erodes the value of the purse for everyone else.

When a rank-and-file marketing professional misuses the word ‘strategy’, it costs that person a bit of credibility and it erodes the value of the word for everyone else.

There are two primary abuses of the word ‘strategy’ in marketing which have eroded its value and promoted it to buzz word status:

1. Referring to tactics as though they’re strategies
2. Ignoring the foundational philosophy on which a strategy must be built

I’ll define these abuses and their consequences in my next post, My Boycott on Strategy (Part 2).

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4 Responses to My Boycott on Strategy (Part 1)

  1. Cole Farrell says:

    Smart post, Jesse. I have been thinking this same thing, particularly in terms of follow-through. It seems I often have talk lately with clients about managed content services, and they are interested in the conversation right up until the point that they realize that all the strategies in the world don’t really matter if you don’t do the work to follow them up.

    I’m interested to hear the rest of your thoughts on strategies vs. tactics.

    • jkurth says:

      Hey Cole — you’re absolutely right.

      Without tactical execution and follow through, any strategy is worthless. But there’s a factor in the equation that comes even before strategy, and that’s foundational philosophy. A strategy is just as useless without a foundational philosophy as it is without tactical execution. Philosophy provides the guiding principles, the governing values, the purpose for being. It’s what makes a strategy worth executing.

      Defining and communicating philosophy is a leadership problem with leadership solutions. This is what I’ll dive into in part 2.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Hi Jesse,

    I´m so happy that I´m not alone with my thoughts… at the moment I am writing my Bachelorwork about circular strategies (in the field of social work). It´s just like you said – many people think they use a strategy; well it´s true if people act according to a plan and not in a chaotic way, strictly speaking, this is what we call “a strategy” – but in fact most people are acting more or less in a chaotic way, because most people use something I call linear-strategies. You have to distinguish between linear and circular strategies: most people simply decide from the gut and call this “a strategy” – well in fact it is a strategy – it is a linear strategy. Linear strategies are the most basic form of strategies: simple solutions for simple problems. They work just fine as long as they don´t have to deal with resistance. At the point a system which uses a linear strategy has to deal with a resistor it has to deal with it in a linear way: the system has to generate a new (linear) strategy to deal with the problem. So this is what happens every time when the strategy is confronted with a resistor: ne strategies must be generated if the original strategy is not able to deal with the resistor (if a strategy is not able to deal with a resistor, then we call this “Incompetence”). That is the reason why linear strategies get more and more complex and therefore more and more cumbersome [my work is also dealing with complexity reduction especially with strategical complexity reduction – so if you are interested in what I think about that, just tell me…]. Compared to linear strategies circular strategies can achieve a much higher degree of flexibility and adaptability. So if you are interested in my thoughts about strategy or even in my work just tell me and maybe we can exchange some experiences. I hope my English is not that bad and there are no understanding problems. Greets, Markus 😉

    • jkurth says:

      Hey Markus — Thanks for shedding a little more light on taxonomy of strategy and their respective characteristics. Your English is quite fluent and I’m glad you stopped by. Thanks for reading!

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