Is strategy just a fancy word for a plan? I believe there is a real difference between the two. How you communicate depends upon understanding the differences.
While all strategies qualify as plans, not all plans are strategies. The biggest difference is which one sees the big picture.
A plan could simply be a list of steps or a randomly brainstormed list of ideas. In most cases, a plan outlines steps to take to accomplish a goal.
A strategy involves a higher level of thinking and is based upon knowing what you are trying to achieve. It considers the context for decisions and looks at all the relevant choices and resources that are available. The tools chosen to implement the strategy are carefully selected based upon their own merits but also by how they work together and support one or more of the other tools. Seeing the big picture and how all the supporting pieces help achieve success is a distinguishing characteristic of a strategy.
A strategy comes with built in flexibility. While the whole point of having a strategy is to stick by it and implement it, no strategy can see into the future and anticipate every curve thrown at you or new opportunities. The structure of the strategy and the thought process to create it, can be used to determine when changes are necessary or if a new opportunity can be incorporated into what you are already implementing.
Another difference is that anyone can create a plan but I believe a strategy requires relevant expertise.
Going grocery shopping
Here’s an example to illustrate how I see the difference. Having a plan is like going to the grocery store with a list, you identify what you want and need, write it down and check it off as you collect each item. You may have certain goals in mind such as weight loss but they may not be used to filter your choices–or at least not all of them.
Grocery shopping with a strategy would involve establishing health objectives or perhaps reflect your personal values, developing a menu plan and making your buying choices based upon the carefully considered decisions you have made. You would also consider if you needed to go to the grocery store at all or at least determine which items make the most sense for you to buy there. You may instead prefer to make some of your purchases at a farmer’s market or other local food source, a specialty vendor such as a butcher or a cheese shop or maybe even grow your own food. You may also make other choices like paying a premium for products with less processing.
Communicating without a strategy
While it’s true that both options are better than walking into the grocery store without a list–especially if you are hungry–having a strategy behind your shopping is a definite improvement over simply having a list.
Too often an organization’s approach to communications is like walking into the grocery store without a list. Their thinking goes like this: It’s January. Time for a newsletter. Or: Guess we should have a Facebook page.
Another common approach is to have a plan that resembles a list.
- January newsletter. Check!
- Newspaper ad. Check!
- Annual report. Check!
- Sent a message on Twitter. Check!
In this case, the plan is often developed with minimal thought. For example, it’s time to send an 8 page newsletter to our normal list because that’s what we have always done. No consideration is given to if a newsletter is the right way to reach your audience, why you are including a story or how the time and resources could be better used. Checking it off the list is the priority.
Communicating with a strategy
When you communicate with a strategy, you do so knowing what you are doing, why, how your various efforts work together and have an idea on whether your objectives are being achieved.
You may for instance choose to eliminate or reduce the frequency of a print newsletter in order to have an e-newsletter. You might choose the e-newsletter to reach more people more frequently. Doing so may free up funds such as postage costs to be used in another way such as an upgraded annual report. An online e-newsletter may also free up staff time being used to manage staff lists or to send them out in small batches. An e-newsletter may also help link its readers to your other communications efforts such as your website or online videos and e-magazines.
But maybe an e-newsletter doesn’t make sense for your organization, its target audiences or helps achieve your objectives. Taking time to create a strategy helps you to determine what will which is why we recommend that you have one. The resulting structure gives you confidence that you are moving in the right direction for the right reasons.
Plan to have a strategy.