Strategy Design

Tactics is extension in space. Strategy is extension in time.

Extension of what? Extension of power, extension of will: a projection of desired change in the world.

The word “strategy” is often used loosely to mean, “How I plan to try to do something.” It gets used more as a sort of wishful thinking than a concrete statement of intent and contingency control. When it comes to extending our desires into the future, we need a definition of “strategy” that’s a bit more stringent.

Before we embark on a campaign to change something in the world, we should understand clearly just exactly where we’re starting from. It’s no good planning a journey of a thousand steps only to discover near the end that your destination is simply unreachable from the place you’re standing. So the first part of strategy development is to survey the place where you are: get a reasonably accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses you bring to the battle, of the resources you start with or can confidently muster along the way.

This is frequently quite a difficult step. People (all of us!) harbour unrealistic notions of their capabilities and capacities. Ordinary human ego at work, but in order to develop a realistic picture of where we’re starting from, we need to get through the veils of self-delusion. Not so easy.

Next you have to know just where it is you want to go. What is the end result, the change in the world you want to see happen. This is the easy part — it’s just wishful thinking. But that’s OK: The first Act of Design in creating any new thing in the world always happens inside someone’s imagination long before it shows up in the world.

Then, knowing where you’re starting from, along with knowing where you want to get to, you need to plot a path from Here to There.

And then you’re done, right?

Most people would say that the three steps I’ve outlined above are IT. The path is the strategy.


What’s Missing?

For a start, the first plan we come up with for “getting from Here to There” is almost never the most effective one, no matter how much we iterate and refine it. We nearly always fall in love with our first plan. It’s, “Look at how clever I’ve been! I found a path from Here to There, and it might just work.” Ego again.

Look for another path. And another, and another. At minimum, try to develop at least four different ways to get from Here to There. At least. Four. More is better. And Plans 2 through 6 should be at least as detailed and brightly envisioned as Number 1. No skimping.

It’s hard work, I know. It’s not fun any more. But you’ll surprise yourself at just how inventive you can become.

Then you can begin to form a draft plan. (Notice that I’m still not calling it a “strategy”. It’s still just a “plan”.) Use the best elements from all of the plans you’ve come up with so far. It’s not necessary, wise nor desirable to pick one winner. Despite the demands this process makes on your imagination and the tedious amount of time it might take, this is all still just the stuff of imagination. It’s still cheap. Much cheaper than committing actual budget and people to carrying it out. If there’s a good time to make far-reaching changes to your plan, this is that time, not when your troops are already in the field when change becomes expensive, time-consuming and bloody.

Still not done

Now we can begin to test our plan, to probe for its strengths and weaknesses. Look again at Where We Are, Where We Want To Be and How We Think We Might Get From Here To There. Imagine yourself and your colleagues at the very end of the campaign, be it some months or years from now, and ask yourselves four questions:

  • Best outcome?
  • Worst outcome?
  • Median?
  • Most likely?


What is the very best way this could turn out? What elements of the plan made it so? What aided this (still imagined) success. This is the easy one — the ego loves this story. We won. We’re heroes. We’re rich and the winners. Don’t spend too much time on this part of the development exercise, but don’t lose sight of its purpose: identify the strengths in your plan, the places where your resources and resourcefulness match your ambition. And watch for timing issues. Don’t commit resources needlessly early. (Nor too late.) This Best Path analysis can teach you much about good timing.


What is the very worst way this could turn out? What constitutes catastrophe? How can you detect — the earlier the better — whether your plan is being derailed? Worst Path will teach you about measuring progress and gets you to think about how to test your own assumptions (of which there will be many). It’s impossible to have certainty about the landscape before you start out, but these imponderables will resolve themselves as you move closer to There. Then your ignorance and delusions will get exposed, and what we’re looking for during this stage of strategy development is a set of key indicators, a set of warning signals that will help us steer a course toward our desired End Goals.


What is the most mediocre way this could turn out? Neither total success nor total failure, but… meh. This is most frequently what happens in reality, especially when we latched immediately onto the first plan we came up with. It’s instructive though, in identifying acceptable outcomes (even if they’re not Total Success) and acceptable failures — because the one certainty is that the world is not going to cooperate with your wishes every step of the way.

Most Likely

What is the most likely way this could turn out? (It is not any of the other three paths described above!) This is where we consider our plan from the outside — from the way the world is likely to perceive our actions and the ways it is likely to respond.

Now you have some (hazy, incomplete, unresourced and in places just wrong) notions about the elements that can help or hinder your journey from Here to There. You’ve considered who might be your allies, enemies and also-rans. You’ve mapped some of the shoals and storms that might divert and slow you, some of the safe harbours and trade-winds that might favour your endeavour. Some of those possibilities are more important than others, either because there is a greater possibility of them occurring, or because their impact may upset your apple-cart despite being a lower probability. Write these down, and, for each one, write a short one-pager (bullet points) on how these accidents can be avoided, or how their effects can be countered if they do occur despite your best efforts. On those pages, be sure to include the impacts that each accident is likely to have on the resources you were planning to use in other ways in the execution of your strategy.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

Watch out: The world is reflexive.

Even as you begin executing, the world changes in response to your action. A competitor notices what you’re up to and makes counter moves. Or worse: another competitor launches a nearly identical campaign two days before yours. The cheek! How dare they?

When, and how often, do you plan to revisit your plans to check that they still apply, that your best/worst/median outcomes still look valid, that your starting assumptions about time, money, people and the landscape still hold? Will it be something like a four- or six-month review? Or are there more meaningful inflexion points in your plan where review and adjustment of the plan will make better sense. (And it will need adjustment. Steer, don’t aim.) The financial vista, the political and regulatory climate, the markets, even the physical world,.. all will be changing as you progress, and it is worth giving some thought to identifying which parts of your plan are relatively flexible and can easily adjust to accommodate these changes, and which parts of your plan are more rigid and unbending. It can all too easily happen that you wake up one morning and some random virus pandemic has rendered your original end-goal meaningless.

Now at last you have a working strategic plan. You’ve considered several paths to achieving lasting glory (or profit or growth or something else you deem worthwhile). You’ve considered how and why it might succeed or fail or do something between those two extremes, and you’ve thought about the strong-points and weak-points, about the times when risks in your plan will render you vulnerable, and you’ve given some thought to what to do about those. And finally you’ve also considered where and how you are likely to be forced to bend your plan in the face of the changes it make in the landscape. Time, now, to go back to the beginning, to close the loop. Do you have the resources you need to carry this out? If not, can you acquire them? How long will that take relative to the time they’ll be needed?

Time to decide: press the GO button? or cancel?

To be honest, I’ve never known an organisation to get this deep into the strategy development process and then not execute. If the original goal is a no-go, you’ll figure that out much, much earlier on in the process.


This is a mere outline. Many details have been left out. There are numerous places in the process where you’ll want to loop back, revisit earlier work and revise it in the light of new understanding. If I’d put all of that into this short article it would have become a book.

Strategy development is hard work and often arduous, and mostly, people are not up for it. Too much preparation, too much anticipation, so they opt instead for the shorter version, called Busking It. Then they wonder why they failed. The slightly more clever ones simply declare victory anyway and pretend that the outcome they got was what they’d wanted all along.

The question we all have to answer for ourselves is, “Just how certain do I wish to make the vision I have for how the world should be? Just how much do I want this change?