When writing plans and proposals I am forever asking (and forever being asked), “what is the strategy?” “Can you send me the strategy document?” “Do you have a strong strategy?” What exactly does this mean, though? What the heck, really, is a “strategy?”

A strategy can be a plan to achieve world peace – or tips on applying eyeliner in the car. The word covers a lot of territory. But here at work we generally use “strategy” to mean a vision of how we’ll get where we want to go. A strong strategy is a compelling vision backed up by a realistic set of assumptions and pathways to get from here to there. A weak strategy is missing some element of that package.

Our most common lapse when developing strategies is to think too small. We also tend to think we already know what we need to do (isn’t it obvious! We’ve got lives to save! Let’s get moving!), and so see strategy as a bunch of blah blah blah that just takes up space. But a good strategy can save you from making costly mistakes, and it can transform a listless set of actions into something exciting and meaningful. The problem is that getting your head away from activities and actions and into strategy can be hard.

I work on health communication strategies all the time, and so when I think about them content and process get all muddled up – I am too close to it. So to illustrate a practical way of thinking through strategy I decided to go a little farther afield. How far afield? Outer space.

Imagine we are responding to a request for proposal whose stated goal is:

By 2020, a living human will walk on the surface of Mars and return safely.

We’ve got to get that human to Mars and back.

This is an appropriate place to state that I have no knowledge of Mars, engineering, astrophysics, or anything remotely helpful to sending someone to Mars, let alone bringing them back safely.

Anyway. Say that we actually are a bunch of NASA geniuses and we know what to do and what we are talking about. We might sit down on day one of the proposal process, break out the flip charts and sticky notes, and end up with this:


(Let me break in here: if you got this post via email, and there is no photo of a bunch of sticky notes above this line, this blog post is going to make no sense. Try clicking on the link and reading it in a browser.)

So, we have a list of activities we’ll need to achieve our outcome. Strategy, right? Nope. Not strategy. Although all those activities sound necessary (especially pack enough coffee), how do we know that? And how do we know that we haven’t left something out? Where is the pathway that gets you from packing coffee to walking on Mars?

Okay, okay, so we back up. Now we think about the elements that are necessary and sufficient for giving a human a stroll on Mars:


Better. We’ve backed up and instead of thinking of activities, we are thinking about elements of a successful trip. You need transportation, life support (that’s where the coffee comes in), people, and communication. Okay. Well, how are we going to get those things? We jot down some ideas:

how to get them

Since waiting for the aliens to come give us a lift might take us beyond the stated deadline of 2020 we take that one off the list.

Now we are getting somewhere. We have an outcome, a list of necessary and sufficient elements of success, and we have some approaches for getting those things we need. Is that a strategy yet? Well, we’ve got most of the pieces. What we don’t yet have is a vision, something that ties the elements together in a compelling way. So we think some more, and it comes to us: this could be cool! This could be bigger than the sum of its parts! This could mean more than just walking on Mars! Here we go:


So now we have a big vision, i.e. a way to articulate the path forward in a compelling way: we are going to get the whole world jazzed about going to Mars, innovation is going to flourish, inventors will invent, and all countries will share their technology freely for the benefit of human progress. We put our sticky notes together in a way that shows how our strategy encompasses the approaches that lead to the necessary and sufficient elements to achieve the outcome. It looks like this:

full strategy

We’ve moved some things around, realizing that communication is now needed to build this global movement, and that the global movement is going to solve a vexing problem, raising the funds needed for all that innovating, building, and training that needs to happen to actually get someone to Mars.

This whole thing, the diagram, is the bones of a strategy. To make it an actual presentable strategy you’d take each piece, starting with vision on the left, and describe it in paragraph form. You’d turn the diagram into something more lovely and graphic and put it into your document (usually after the vision and a general statement of strategy) to serve as a roadmap to the reader as they absorb each section.

But wait! Where are those activities! Yeah, them. They don’t need to be in a strategy document at all (though you might start conceptualizing them immediately after doing the strategy). Activities belong in a workplan, for sure, or in the Activities section of a proposal. Why not include them in a strategy? Because strategy is the guiding document, the lodestar, and there may be a shifting set of activities underneath it – if you find yourself off course, for instance, you look at the lodestar to orient yourself. The direction you go in (i.e. the activities you take) will be different based on where you are in time and space. But the strategy should guide you.

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