The strategic difference that really counts

Difference, as we know, is at the heart of strategy.

In any realm – business, politics, military, personal – it is about walking a different path to the others around you.  Indeed we might say that’s its very definition:

Strategy is that which only you do.

Naturally, you will be the same as others in the vast majority of ways – 95% of your actions are probably completely standard.  But the remaining 5% is where you get leverage, where you find your edge.  That’s your strategy.

Still, whilst difference from others is fundamental to the strategic process, it’s not the only difference that counts.  In fact, there is another form of difference which I would say is even more important, and that is this:

Difference from yourself.

This sounds a bit esoteric, but actually, it’s very simple.  You see the problem with most strategies is that it’s kind of bullshit: all high-minded talk, but very little in the way of real tangible action.  Many are strategies that only exist on paper, and not in the real world.  Many are the organisations and people who believe they are following a strategy, but in reality, are following the same generic path as everyone else.

The way to escape from this trap is to not only measure your difference from others but to measure your difference from yourself before you adopted the strategy.

In other words, what have you changed as a result of this strategy?

The reason this is important is that you can kid yourself on the first point, but not on the second.  For example, if a business adopts a new wooly strategy that actually means nothing meaningful, and is asked to defend it in relation to their competitors, they can generally do a pretty good job.  It’s super easy to rationalise a shit strategy and explain in convoluted terms how it works.  What isn’t so easy to rationalise however is the far more simple question: “what have you changed?”.

Naturally, if a strategy hasn’t prompted an obvious binary change in comparison to conditions pre-strategy, then it doesn’t exist.  All you’ve done is intellectualise what you were doing before – something which feels good but is otherwise pretty pointless.

If you don’t have much experience with developing strategy you may doubt the extent to which this is possible, but trust me, it’s not only possible; it’s the norm.

I’ve worked in organisations who have done big strategic exercises, changed absolutely nothing of consequence, and yet truly believed they were following through on their plans.  Equally, at the start of my doing this line of work, I worked with a couple of clients who wholeheartedly agreed with my strategic recommendations, but then (to my mind) did nothing about it.  Again, they thought they adopted the strategy but they hadn’t, not really.

I now see that measuring the difference between yourself today and yourself yesterday is the one sure-fire way you can avoid this trap.  It’s simple, it’s binary, and there’s no hiding.

What makes it even more important than the difference you have with competitors is that without it there is no strategy.  A slightly dodgy strategy that exists is generally preferable to a brilliant one that doesn’t.  It’s like if you want to lose weight: it’s more important that you change your behaviour than the specifics of the behaviour you change to.  (Within reason of course – if your strategy is to double your cake intake then OK, you’re probably better off with nothing…).

When all’s said and done, it’s a question of accountability.  Change is always hard.  It’s why New Year resolutions don’t stick.  It’s why recovering addicts have sponsors.  It’s why most of us, let’s face it, don’t end up getting what we want.  Left to our own devices we’ll always find a way to wriggle out of our commitments.  And that’s why we need a little help.

That’s what this question is for.  Ask it, and you’ll have nowhere left to hide.

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