Hope Is Not a Strategy

Years ago during my time in the military, I served as a commanding officer of an Apache Longbow attack helicopter company. As I planned an upcoming tactical mission, I briefed my regimental commander (colonel) on our strategy. I came to the meeting, ready to discuss the details, but it became clear from the beginning that the colonel was not interested in the minutia of the mission. Instead, he wanted to know how well we’d planned and prepared for the unexpected.

The colonel zeroed in on one aspect of my contingency plans and asked what I would do if the enemy didn’t react as predicted. I took a deep breath and responded, “We hope that our weapons systems will provide us the coverage we need . . . .”

The colonel interrupted me, “Captain, hope is not a strategy!”

I learned that day strategy is more than a plan peppered with expressions of hope to compensate for a lack-luster design. “Hope is not a strategy” is simply another way of saying that action is more important than words and that careful planning and preparation is more useful than grand ideas.

Since transitioning to corporate America, I’ve learned this adage remains just as relevant. An ill-defined tactic (i.e., hope) or a poorly developed plan will likely result in substantial or possibly unrecoverable damage to the organization. An approach that only promotes high ideals without at least laying the foundation for turning that proposal into actuality is ineffective at best and risky at worst.

As you work to develop your strategy, articulate your design concepts so they are actionable and clearly define how you can uniquely deliver your service or product to the market. Conducting strategic design to this degree of detail can seem daunting to many organizations.

Here are some general tips for designing a strategy that does not rely upon hope as your primary method:

  • Diagnosis: The best market strategies include developing the approach from a deep understanding of the market uncertainties, industry, competition, and consumer needs. When you can gather and organize the relevant data around these factors and determine patterns, you can quickly predict behaviors and future demands, giving your company an advantage over those that don’t take the time to do disciplined research.
  • Differentiation: Develop a good strategy to offer something to the market that is different and unique. This differentiated offering should be difficult for competitors to copy and provide exceptional value to the customer. As you bring this offering to market, think of ways you can blend your organizational capabilities to make the overall offering(s) harder for competitors to duplicate. Without this aspect of your strategy, you will soon be a victim of competitive convergence.
  • Tradeoffs: All strategies require careful resource management. One of the most challenging elements of developing a plan is deciding how to allocate your resources to the most strategic capabilities of your organization. Usually, this means that you must reallocate resources from another part of your organization. An indication that an organization does not have a clear or well-thought-out strategy is a lack or unwillingness to make difficult tradeoff decisions around resource allocation, including prioritization of capability development. If it is unclear which activities in your organization have priority of resources, then it is likely your strategy is not aligned with the design and processes of your organization.
  • Leverage: Because of our evolving business landscape, strategies must be designed to capitalize on changing markets, customer buying trends, emerging markets, and other components. A good plan should take into consideration this complex environment and offer unique solutions to plan for the unexpected and be ready to pounce on opportunities that present themselves.

Take time and plan for the unexpected. If your competition responds differently than you expect, have a well-thought-out response in place to react to that change. If your customers use your product or service more quickly than you anticipated, will you know what you need to do? Merely “hoping” your organization will properly respond to market contingencies is not a dependable strategy.

Hope should never be a compensating factor for a lack-luster strategic design. While you can have confidence in any plan, both developed and undeveloped, it is not wise to implement your strategy without thorough analysis and planning. The most successful organizations deeply understand their operating environment, develop strategies to operate successfully in their environment, and then focus on enhancing their organization capabilities that effectuate their strategy. Hope is nowhere in this equation.