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The most common strategic planning tool in the world is SWOT Analysis. Contrary to popular opinion, SWOT is not an acronym for “Serious Waste of Time,” although in many cases it can be if not done correctly. SWOT stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.” One of the biggest complaints with SWOT is that once it’s completed, we don’t do anything with it. In the following excerpt from my strategy graphic novel, StrategyMan vs. The Anti-Strategy Squad: Using Strategic Thinking to Defeat Bad Strategy and Save Your Plan, I share a technique for transforming SWOT into strategies.

Strategy can be defined as the intelligent allocation of resources through a unique system of activities to achieve a goal. Simply put, strategy is how you plan to achieve your goal. With this definition comes the caveat of competition—both direct and indirect—which will attempt to prevent you from reaching your goal. That is why plans must be fluid and strategy created and calibrated with a continuous flow of strategic thinking. Based on strategy’s definition as “the intelligent allocation of resources through a unique system of activities to achieve a goal,” let’s break strategy down into its three primary components:

1. Allocation of Resources. How you and your organization use your resources—time, talent, and budget—comprises your strategy. You may have a strategy written down in a PowerPoint deck, but observe how your people are spending their time, talent, and budget every day and you’ll see your true strategy. Discipline is a key ingredient. Aimlessly investing a few hours each day on tasks that are not directly supportive of your goals may seem productive but will destroy your chances of real success. If you have not clearly written out and communicated the strategy on a consistent basis, then where people channel their resources becomes a matter of chance. Good leaders don’t leave strategy to chance.

2. Unique System of Activities. Perhaps the most common error in business planning is mistaking operational effectiveness for strategy. Operational effectiveness is the proverbial wolf in strategy’s clothing. It means performing similar activities in a similar manner as competitors, trying to do them a little better or faster. However, employing operational effectiveness without strategy is like running the same race as competitors, only hoping to run a little faster. Creating strategy indicates that we are going to run a different course than our competitors are running—one that we ourselves have designed to win.

A study of more than 200 companies found that 93% of the top 20% of financial performers have a strong form of differentiation at their core. Do you? If your strategy does not include different activities or similar activities performed in different ways, then it’s not going to create distinct value. Not until you get off the beaten path can the beating begin.

3. Achieve a Goal. In preparation for facilitating strategy workshops and executive coaching with senior executives, I review roughly 300 plans a year, and some are too complex, too long, or both. A good plan simply answers the two questions we introduced earlier:

1) What are you trying to achieve? 2) How will you achieve it?

Your goal and objective represent the answer to the first question (what you are trying to achieve), and strategy and tactics answer the second question (how you will achieve it). While it may be tempting to start with the strategy in developing a plan, remember that you first have to determine your destination before you can identify how to get there.

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