Strategy Is Like Medicine

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If I had a nickel for every time I heard a client say “we have no strategy” or “we need a strategy” I could afford to host a GSA employee conference.

Strategy is like medicine.

If you’re sick or not feeling well, and you take the right medicine, in the right dosage, at the right time, and for the appropriate length of time, you’ll get better.

It’s the same with business strategy. Sick (i.e., under-performing) companies that invest the right amount of money in the right strategy, and keep with it long enough, tend to get better.


But if you’re ill, and you take the wrong medicine, or take the wrong dosage, or don’t take the medicine for enough time, you don’t get better.

That’s analogous to what happens to a lot of companies. They embark on what they think is the right strategy, but don’t sufficiently invest in it, or invest sufficiently over a long enough period of time.


Have you ever not felt well, started taking a particular kind of medicine, not felt any benefits, and then switched medicines? I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve run into that, two years into their 5-year strategic plan, formulate another strategy.


There’s another analogy that fits here: If you’re not sick, taking medicine might actually make you sick.

This will be hard for some people to swallow (pun intended), but a company’s strategy might be OK despite a lack of results to show for it. Perhaps it’s too early for investments in the strategy to have paid off, and/or the economic climate is having a negative impact.

Many companies seem compelled to reevaluate their strategy every year, and conduct annual strategic planning exercises. This is foolish. A company’s strategy shouldn’t have to change every year.

Please don’t tell me that technology is changing so fast that it requires a company to revisit (and/or change) its strategy on an annual basis. If your company is successfully pursuing a low-cost advantage or differentiated strategy, then environmental, economic, technological, and consumer changes should simply be assessed in terms of what investments  — investments that are consistent with, and supporting of the company’s strategy — need to be made as a result of these changes.

What most firms really need is a strategic re-calibration, not a strategy re-formulation.


In the financial services world, a lot of credit unions will be spinning their strategy wheels this year.

They’ll whisk their board of directors off to some fancy hotel for a strategic planning offsite, where a parade of consultants will come through educating them on the changes on the horizon and how their organization’s strategy must change to adapt to these changes. Innovate or die! Get on social media or become irrelevant!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking this process entirely. The CU board of directors deserve some quality time at a fancy resort. And I’m more than happy to be one of the consultants CUs bring in to persuade the BOD to make changes (I do, however, prefer to do these sessions in the middle of the week, not on the weekends).

But if the purpose of these meetings is to reformulate, redefine, recraft — re-whatever — the organization’s strategy, it might be the wrong medicine.

For a lot of senior credit union execs who have spent their entire careers running or participating in annual strategic planning exercises, this could be a bitter pill to swallow (oh, is there no end to the puns?!).

These senior execs might think that the strategic definition and planning efforts they’re running is helping their organization determine its course and direction, and is helping to get people on the same page. 

But often these efforts do the opposite. As Farnam Street writes:

“A leader’s most important responsibility is identifying the biggest challenges to forward progress.”

The Board of Directors at your strategic planning off-site isn’t going to identify these challenges. What often happens, in fact, is that these strategy sessions produce the opposite effect: They create more confusion and misalignment, because the newly-defined strategy requires changes to an already poorly defined strategy.


One last thought regarding strategy and medicine. 

You wouldn’t get a prescription for medicine from someone unqualified to diagnose your situation, and recommend and prescribe the right medicine, would you?

Of course not. So why do so many companies turn to so-called social media strategists for strategic prescriptions?

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