At its most basic level, a strategy is a hypothesis. To be a good strategy, it must precisely diagnose the problem being solved; set a guiding policy that will address that problem; and propose a set of coherent actions which will deliver that policy.
These three elements make up the ‘Kernel of Good Strategy’ defined by Richard Rumelt in his book ‘Good Strategy / Bad Strategy’. Rumelt started his working life as an engineer, before becoming an academic and management consultant to some of the largest organisations in the world. He has also advised the US Department of Defence on Strategy.
Good strategies will diagnose problems, set a guiding principle and then specify coherent actions
His work has helped to guide my thinking on strategy, giving me greater clarity on what a successful strategy looks like. It helps me identify pain points for brands and come up with new ideas that will help them achieve their objectives.
Abuses of stragey
Before delving into what a good strategy is, let’s think about the state of ‘strategy’ today.
The word ‘strategy’ is overused. It is shoe horned into conversations to create gravitas (eg. “this is our strategic approach”); it’s misused as a synonym for ‘good quality’ (“strategic report”); and it has become a catchall term for anything deemed important (“strategic partner”). ‘Strategy’ is becoming a verbal tic in marketing circles, where if something isn’t pre-fixed with ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic’ it isn’t worth listening to, leading to everything (ideas, brain-storms, loo breaks) being described as ‘strategic’.
In addition to this rampant noun-abuse, there is also ‘strategy done wrong’. Fluffy statements, not facing challenges, mistaking goals for objectives and fuzzy objectives are all common strategy mistakes.
So what is a better way to think about strategy?
The Kernel of Good Strategy
Much like a good strategy, The Kernel of Good Strategy is simple and practical. It contains three elements:
- The first is a thorough diagnosis. This is more than a description of the situation; it is an articulation of the problems and challenges that need to be addressed, a simplified version of reality.
- The second is a clear guiding policy. This is an overarching approach or method for solving the diagnosed challenges. Importantly, the guiding policy must rule out actions, as well as directing us towards a number of actions.
- Finally, a good strategy will include coherent actions. These must be practical, coordinated activities. The key word here is ‘coherent’. Actions should complement each other, and create a ‘greater sum’ like effect, where actions add power to each other.
The illustrate these three elements, and compare to a ‘bad’ strategy, I’ve used the state of the British highstreet today:
What is the true meaning of ‘strategy’?
These ideas have two implications. One, The Kernel is a powerful and practical way of creating better, more effective strategies. Secondly, it should be used as a litmus test of if something is strategic or not. If an idea, insight, plan, report, etc. does not include a clear diagnosis, a guiding principle, and coherent actions, it can’t truly be described as ‘strategic’.
It is not realistic to expect every marketing action to stand up to these principles. And that’s ok. But let’s start using different descriptors. There is nothing wrong with a tactical plan, an operational idea, a situational report or a foundational insight if that is what circumstances call for.
Finally, remembering that a strategy is ultimately an hypothesis will help us get the most out of this simple word. Do you agree with The Kernel of Good Strategy? Have you come across a better definition of ‘strategy’? I would love to hear.