The 3 ways to judge a strategy

There are two ways a strategy can fail:

  1. By being wrong
  2. By not being a strategy

The first of these, I’m sorry to say, you can’t do much about.  No matter how dazzling your thinking or penetrative your insights, you’ll never really know if it’s going to be effective until after the strategy’s been executed.  Reality is the only judge that counts.

The second however is within your control, long before you ever need to commit to anything.  Simply put, many strategies simply aren’t strategies at the most basic structural level.  This is nothing to do with them being “right or wrong”; it’s that they aren’t usable; they aren’t functionally capable of guiding company-wide decision making.

Fortunately, with a little coaxing, many “non-strategies” such as theses do have the potential to be kicked into a strategic shape.

How?  By using the following three tricks.

I’ve written about each of these before, but i thought it would be useful to group them here as a mini-toolkit for fixing flawed pseudo strategies before they have the chance to get out in the open and do real damage.

Simply take your idea, put it through these tests, and see what comes out at the other end.

1. Difference from yourself

Difference from yourself is what I call “the first goal of strategy”.  Instead of trying to be different from your competitors, you first need to make sure your strategy is going to make you different from yourself – in other words, does this strategy obviously demand a real tangible change from the business as it is today?  If the answer is no, and you feel you could follow the strategy without actually changing much, then guess what – the strategy doesn’t exist!  Keep working until change is unavoidable.

2. The subjectivity test

Next, you must ensure that your strategy has been purged of all language which could reasonably be called a “value judgement”.  This means words such as “good”, “better”, “best”, or anything which whiffs of an opinion as opposed to a fact.  Remember, value judgements don’t belong to you, they belong to your customers.  Your job is to take objective action which drives their subjective reaction.  Too many strategies skirt over this, and simply jump to the reaction they want to prompt, without being clear on just how they’re going to do it.

3. The how cascade

When you tell someone your strategy, ideally there should only be two possible responses: “how?”, or “ah right, got it”.  If the first reaction your strategy prompts is “how?”, then this is a signal you are still dealing with more of an aspiration than a strategy.  You’ve provided a challenge, rather than a solution.  A strategy is only complete when people stop asking “how”, and are able to fill in the blanks for themselves.  So keep asking it until you don’t need to anymore.


If your strategy passes these three tests, then it’s a damn good one.  Structurally at least.  It might not work quite the way you think it will, but it is at least workable.  And at this stage, that’s the best you can possibly ask.

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