So honestly guys, I get asked a lot about how to get into strategy and/or consulting. Or simply how to do a strategy.
On LinkedIn, on Twitter, on Facebook. And these days even IG and TikTok. There are many ways to get into strategy and consulting. Here’s what I tell the people who come to me.
This covers the basics of those questions.
How to get into strategy as a profession, or simply get better at strategy.
(The strategy strategy?)
How I found my way is simple.
My Path – I went through a series of jobs doing analysis and project management that lead organically to portfolio planning and strategic planning. Which forced me to learn basic business skills like spreadsheets, databases, planning, meeting facilitation, budgeting, schedules, process improvement, change management, staffing, HR, finance, and accounting.
Basic business skills are good for understanding how businesses work. Which is different from strategy, but very complementary to doing strategy for business.
Strategy. Basically, my path here is as simple as just reading and studying all the time.
Overall, strategy is simply problem-solving. But it’s also a series of tools and processes to lead groups of people on the journey of identifying problems, planning out solutions, and making solutions happen in a changing world where the strategy changes as the world does.
I really just put in a lot of work to get into what I’m doing now. I studied what I wanted to learn, practiced it at work, volunteered to do things at work and in professional societies that gave me no extra money or recognition. I applied all the cool strategy tricks I was learning to my work, my jobs, my life. And learned how to do it. I used my career, my family, my co-workers, and my life as experiments to see how the theory worked in practice. I learned that anything can work somewhere, it’s making sure that the techniques align what needs to be done and who is doing them.
Really it just comes down to putting in the time to get good at what you want to do.
Look at your experience… And then fill in the gaps. As a professional, strategy work and strategy consulting can look like many different things. Just the world of marketing and advertising often call themselves strategists (at selling things).
Business strategy classically come down to a few things
- Marketing and Communications – because you will always be selling something – a product, and idea, buy-in, a strategy.
- Competitive Intelligence – what’s going on
- Strategic Planning / Strategic Foresight – how to make a strategic plan
- Business Analysis, Business architecture, process improvement – understanding business
- Data Science – knowing how to draw conclusions from all that data and numbers on computers – at the basics know the difference between Python and SQL, learn how to make and use dashboards. i.e automate your spreadsheets to save time.
- Finance and Accounting – because you gotta pay for it.
- HR and Organizational Change Management – because you need people to make things happen
- Leadership – you gotta get those in power to trust and help you
- Project Management – simply a solid tool kit for using a variety of resources to achieve an end goal.
- Procurement / Supply Chain – know how to spend a billion dollars responsibly.
- Economics – you gotta know how the world works
- Behavioral science – at least the basics of people and organizational psychology
- Industry knowledge – you have to understand how your client’s industry works and what the typical cultures are like. What laws and regulations they follow, how much money they make, how much money they can spend on strategy, how quickly they can change, and why.
That last part may seem obvious? But I have learned the hard way is what makes you a star in one industry makes you a problem in another. Every industry and every company has it’s own culture. Figure out how they do things before it hurts you. Some cultures are forgiving, many are not. Sometimes the culture is awesome but that one executive makes everything painful. You don’t know until you do your research.
Once you do all that you are basically a small consulting firm onto yourself. Which is what strategy takes – because strategy is not making one department or tool work. Strategy is connecting the dots between everything, seeing what is important, and making lots of departments, tools, systems, structures, and agendas work together for a common goal.
You asked, so here’s the basic strategy to get good at strategy, or to build your own strategy
1 Assess the future. Really look at the world around you. Look up environmental scanning, futures, strategic foresight. The goal here is to figure out what the world looks like in the future, so you have an idea of where you can go, and what will change. You want to benefit from future changes, and not be hurt by them (like pandemics).
2 – Assess yourself. really understand how much time, money, and energy you have to put into this project of changing your career. Actually write down your constraints – how much time, money, and energy you have. Be realistic.
And also write down what motivates you, what your actual goals are. And make sure those goals align well with the future you see.
Literally align your resources, ability, expectations, and goals with what is possible and achievable in the future.
Be as aggressive and ambitious as you like, but understand that it will be harder and take longer than you expect. Life always gets in the way. Look at every project you’ve done in your career – things always happen that complicate getting stuff done.
This may simply be a ton of research on strategy, business, consulting, and various industries and complementary skills like data science to understand what those skills are and how to do it. Look at people who have careers in data analysis/data science and see how they got there.
3 – Write down a strategic plan.
Scope – the goals you want to achieve
What you have to do to achieve those goals
Schedule – what does the path look like, how long will it take, when will you find or make the time to make the journey? Have milestones and a way to see progress to celebrate.
Budget – How much money can you invest? Are you doing this in your free time with now money? Are you doing a Graduate Degree? There are many paths that achieve the same goals.
Staffing – is there anyone who can help you, support you
Measurement / tracking – How do you measure progress and keep yourself going?
Risk management – Write down everything you think can go wrong. Mark them all for how likely they are, how bad they will be, and what you can do to prevent or manage those risks.
Tactics – figure out what works for you – Audiobooks? Paper books, Classes, online work, library, reading in bed after you put the kids to sleep? Quitting your job and going back to school? Everyone is different. Build a strategy that plays to your strengths and preferences. Make it as easy as you can on yourself.
4 – Scenario planning.
A scenario plan is a what-if scenario to your strategic plan. Literally what the journey and end looks like, what you will have to react to, and change to make the strategy happen.
I recommend 4 scenarios:
1 – Best case scenario – if everything goes perfect, what does it look like? this is “war gaming” your strategic plan.
2 – Worst case scenario – If everything goes wrong, but you still succeed. What are the things that can go wrong, what do they look like? Can you spot them before they happen, how will you adapt? The risk assessment from above will help feed this
3 – Most likely scenario – what do you think will really happen? How do you adapt and succeed as life gets in the way?
4 – Alternate Scenario – This is the fun part to get creative. What if your goals change? Or you get a Job offer you can’t refuse? Or the economy goes sideways? Look at the analysis of future trends, pick a future trend that can affect your job (Like climate change makes urban planning really fun) look for some sort of disruption that would force you to radically change your strategy, and what that strategic plan would look like.
Scenario planning gives you the tools and preparation you need to react to changes. No plan survives contact with the real world. Your strategy will change.
Once you have that it just executing the plan (which is rarely easy). Adapting to changes, being flexible, changing the plan, and how and what you do as you learn more and have to deal with new changes.
Periodically – monthly or annually – measure your progress, reassess the future, yourself, your plan, your risks, your scenarios. Change them as you like, celebrate your wins, and keep going.
After that, it’s really just repeating the above cycle as you adapt to change and you keep going until you either quit or die.
That’s the basics of it.
Let me know if that helps.
Thank you for your lengthy and helpful comments. I agree with you–but I also believe that you omitted some key areas.
First and foremost, in my view, is remaining abreast of research in strategic management. One essential way to do that is to become a member of the Strategic Management Society (https://www.strategicmanagement.net) and read its journals, esp. the Strategic Management Journal and the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal. Speaking only for myself, I don’t find SMS’s Global Strategy Journal very helpful. However, I always skim its Table of Contents to ensure that I do read an essential paper when one shows up.
I also believe that following the published work of certain scholars is essential. First among them is Michael E. Porter. He’s the person who brought rigor and intellectual respectability to the field of strategic management. Before Porter, the field was all case studies, no theory. Unfortunately, his writing is a tough slog, but it’s essential to plow through it anyway. Read his two books, ‘Competitive Strategy’ and ‘Competitive Advantage.’ He has a number of videos on YouTube. One, in particular, is worth watching and re-watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvYwKM5bY0s.
Other scholars whose work I find essential include Jay Barney (U. ot Utah); Robert Burgelman (Stanford); Nicolai Foss (Copenhagen Business School); Don Hambrick (Penn State); Connie Helfat (Dartmouth); Joe Mahoney (U. of Ill.); Anita McGahan (U. of Toronto); Cynthia Montgomery (Harvard Business School); Edith Penrose (R.I.P. – but be sure to read her classic book, ‘The Theory of the Growth of the Firm); Richard Rumelt (at UCLA for many years, but now an independent scholar); David Teece (U.C./Berkeley); Birger Wernerfelt (M.I.T.); and Todd Zenger (U. of Utah).
Finally, keep in mind that ‘strategy’ is a much-abused word. I have observed hundreds of business professionals who use it repeatedly without demonstrating that they have the slightest idea of what it means. It’s as if they think that using it will make what they’re saying or writing more credible. In fact, it invariably does just the opposite.
I hope these comments are helpful.
Warren! You found my strategy blog. Thanks for the list of references! Awesome.
Very helpful. Thank you! Great summary of high level business strategy thinking.
Everything you wrote is correct. but only a piece of the puzzle.
Actually I thought of this as the VERY short answer to the question. I omitted most areas. I think a complete answer to the question would be several hundred pages, perhaps a series of books. Let know if you know anyone with that kind of time.
More Answer Here:
Now – just adding to the discussion. I believe you are right, and I believe there is much more.
First – I think in common usage – people use “strategy” and “strategic” to mean that they are considering planning, long term, and/or beyond tactical scope. Considering there is not a good agreed to definition for “strategy” other than “A type of plan”. I would say common usage is acceptable, but I agree with Mark Twain on word usage.
And I guess the point for me really is pretty simple. There is more than one kind of strategy, and doing is a better teacher than reading.
I recognize several but not all of your references.
Pattern I see to your references (let me know how wrong I am) – They all look to be established academics who’s advice or audience mis-execution did not prevent the current messes we see in business today. They are great pieces to the puzzle – but tend to be focused on what the C – Suite and Business owners do. The ones I recognize tend to treat a company like a black box or a machine. And most businesses are collections of people engaging in uneven team production with a mix of minimum and maximum compliance. Much corporate lip service to the contrary, companies treat humans as a commodity – both employees and customers. Obvious examples in 2022 are Twitter and Disney. But I sure you can think of more.
Strategy is an abused word. Most people think Strategy = Plan.
I argue strategy = results. (I actually have good definition I’m sitting on, for later publication).
Bad results = Bad strategy. It can be on the Plan, Education, operations, or even tactics. A good strategy considers EVERYTHING and provides achievable results.
All the academics you quoted are great at high level analysis of business and economic case studies describing macro level success and failure in business. But they don’t seem to realize that most companies are failing because of things covered in Plato’s republic. Greed, incompetence, abuse of power. Most strategies fail because of those things.
Business, Sports, War. Same thing. I recently watched a Fortune 100 company miss out on their main strategic expansion opportunity, because it took them more than 6 months to sign a lease. I’ve watched brilliant executives fail because the CRM or PMO software didn’t work well or staff was untrained (or both). I seen several organizations fail because sales and manufacturing don’t communicate and they get oversold or sell the impossible. Worse You see companies fail because they lack controls on pricing strategy to the sales force.
Strategies often fail, because the leadership is so focused on their “strategic plan” that they fail to understand the actual capabilities and limits of their organization.
I would argue that honestly, the strategically least important part of any business is the strategic plan or the common actions of executives. After my limited 30 years in business, I see business is really the same as Military. Generals get the credit, but strategic results is dependent on the Sergeants, LT’s and Captains….
If you want a business to succeed, you need the people making less than $200k a year doing operational strategy, and execution strategy. And executing strategy (making results).
And those middle management strategic skills make or break organizations, and are not typically considered “strategy” because they are what the military would classify as operational and tactical considerations. But the process and skills of strategy still apply, just at a scope closer to the results.
And you need the people making less the $50k per year set up to succeed strategically. And all the better if you can get them thinking strategically (many can). That is were most of the world’s businesses completely fail. People are treated like a commodity. Skilled labor making 6 figure salaries are treated like a commodity. Machinery is not maintained. Home grown software doesn’t work, especially after the people who made it work quit.
Granted, my consulting career has been usually spent explaining to leadership that their brilliant and appropriate strategy cannot be executed because you go to war with the army you have – and their employees are untrained, their tools are not effective, and their entire organization only function because of a small number of competent individuals that are capable of circumventing the people, tools, and processes that don’t work. I’ve done my case studies with access to the general ledger at 40+ companies, incompetence and abuse of power tend to wreck effectiveness at all levels. While Greed adds on to end up with inadequate tools and training. And that was true before the Boomers retired and there was a labor shortage.
Once you learn that FAANG is literally relying on a very small number developers being individually paid over a million dollars a year to individually work 100 hour weeks to hold some system together….
That’s strategically a VERY vulnerable system. And the business strategists are business theory and macro economics, innovation, 5 forces, all great stuff. But if I can literally end a company by paying a handful of people to leave it? That a strategic failure.
Some of the highest valued stocks are a car accident or two away from plumenting. I find that hilarious. I’ve never heard a wall street call ask – if Bobby gets hit by a bus how many hours before the site and app crash and what is the plan to replace Bobby?
If I know my competitor can’t spin up a new business line before I can because it takes them 12 months to get suppliers approved and issue PO’s? Great for me. But their strategic plans mean nothing if their integral organization doesn’t work.
And when I see $30 billion dollar strategic acquisitions of companies whose internal systems don’t work, and then 2 years later the parent company has adopted the acquired systems that are known not to work…
5 years ago Starbucks was still doing everything on paper. 30,000 locations managed on paper. I don’t even know what the accounting auditor did.
Porter and Rummelt are right, but they tend to lack the experience that in the 21st century at least – all to often executives don’t understand how the work gets done. I know, because I’ve done the interviews and presented the results.
And all the academic theory and strategic McKinsey advice in the world won’t give an executive the detailed understanding of how their business works. Executives are portable, and they delegate and trust.
And in my experience – most of the Strategic Planning consultants just play games with executives on figuring out strategic plans that may or may not even be tried let alone implemented.
Most of the strategically valuable work and actual strategic work I’ve seen in companies are by middle management solving problems, and the consultants they bring in. The new tools that are well executed, the organizational change management, the quality of work improvements made for the rank and file employees. And of course the implementation of strategic initiatives is executed by middle management and contractors.
Those are all strategic problems, that need strategic fixes. It’s not the high level strategy. But 5 forces still apply. “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” still applies, It’s OODA loops, golden bridges, competition, applying the right tactics to the right situations and resource management. That’s also strategy.
Honestly Project Managers and Product Managers are constantly doing operational strategy. And often their decisions and skills are more material to the bottom line than what the C suite does. C Suite approves budget and delegates. Somebody else actually does the work and makes it happen or not happen.
I say all of this because I cannot stress enough that strategy is a team sport, it happens at all levels of an organization, and it’s based in the people, tools, and process you have and how well you take care of them. Incompetence, greed, and abuse of power tend to screw up the details. And strategically understanding and managing the details and individuals just as important as the high level strategic plans. This is the sort of thing that Musk is getting wrong at Twitter. This is why Boeing had planes grounded for years. Because strategically important technical details were missed by strategic leadership.
To the point – Strategy work may not mean strategic planning work. McKinsey is arguably hired as a strategic recourse to yield strategic results. But they don’t employ 38,000 strategic planners. Heck, half the company is 20 something’s following procedures, scripts, and orders billing out at $500 an hour. Those are strategic resources.
Strategy is setting up the details to succeed as much as it’s the high level positioning.
Russia built the T-34, and produced them with amazing speed. On paper it’s the best tank of WW2 (speed, range, armor, weapon). In reality, the gunnery sights were hard to use and it took a 10-1 numerical advantage to reliably hit a target. Details matter. And the academics tend to focus on what looks good on paper, and miss the practical details.
Truth is you need both detailed strategic understanding and high level strategy. And more. And if you want a career in strategy – that can be Strategic Planning, it can be mid level consulting, it can be a PM for strategic projects, it can be HR or logistics, it can be organizational change management. It can be legal, finance, and accounting. The number of failures I’ve seen because legal didn’t understand the contract…
Strategy is a team sport, Most disciplines and departments need strategic analysts, strategic management, and strategic SME’s to Align “STRATEGY,” operations, tactics, people, tools, and processes strategically.
Which means there’s a number of different ways to be a strategy professional within a given industry, niche, or skill set.
Heck, my last 10 projects have been in 9 different industries and 6 different disciplines. And all of them were under the umbrella of strategic planning or strategy execution. Didn’t use much Porter, Zenger, or Wernerfelt. I Did use some Rumelt and Teece. Penrose is good, but seems to have missed the strategic resource of skilled individuals that know how things work.
But overall, you can spend a career in business strategy, and never touch Porter or the rest. Because strategy is a team sport, and it takes skilled individuals that can understand business strategy both holistically and in their individual details to achieve strategic results.
So Warren, everything you said it true, for a certain kind of strategist and a certain kind of strategy. One of my friends in the International Association for Strategy Professionals does national missile defense strategy. He loves business strategy, but as a hobby that came with his MBA. It rarely matters to his career.
Specialties and specialists abound, and there are many kinds of strategy Professionals. And some of them are niche enough that traditional business strategy may not be relevant to their work.
Your advice above is perfect to an aspiring strategic planner. But for those looking to do other strategy professions, I want them to know there is far more to strategy than business planning.