What Does “Strategy” Really Mean? Move Over Behemoths, The Little Guys Are Coming for You

After a call with a “strategy” director (I hate quotes, but let me do this just once) at a multibillion dollar public company, I couldn’t help but thank Forrest Gump for popularizing the proverb:

Stupid is as stupid does

This company is in a sleepy industry and to continue to grow they must find new ways to innovate. Our conversation circled around a request to help in what would be a major, breathtaking pivot into a completely new sector. To succeed, the company would need more leadership and more firepower than organic growth would provide, meaning they were looking to acquisitions. And we had the perfect target – a fit so good as to be called an epiphany.

Sadly for this company, their process highlights why strategy at large companies sometimes fails. Plagued by slow, risk-averse and politically charged environments, these companies cannot pivot, innovate, test, and move fast.

When we presented them with a live opportunity to explore an acquisition that in one leap would take them from a stodgy company to an inspiring disruptor in the industry, they put on the brakes. The strategy guy threw out statements like:

“This is really early.”
“We are not quite ready to deploy capital.”
“We are really wary of paying a high price.”

My first piece of advice for this strategy expert is: don’t ever apply for a job with Marc Benioff. Or Elon Musk. Or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s the perfect example of how the mindset of multi-billion dollar companies that once reigned supreme has given way for the little guys to rise up. The upstart is able to pivot and execute fast. In contrast, the bigger a company gets, the more years they spend practicing a strategy rather than executing and iterating quickly.

Marc Benioff famously said: “you need to get to the future first, ahead of your customers, and be ready to greet them when they arrive.”

So what does strategy actually mean in today’s world?

Strategy is not strategic if you can’t execute on it. Consider when it’s done right:

  • Marc Benioff didn’t rest on Salesforce’s laurels as a leading CRM system. He opened up the platform to outside developers, creating a rich, defensible, extensive B2B environment to provide SaaS to companies
  • Elon Musk didn’t stop at Tesla’s sleek design and electric power system – he built the plant needed for next generation longer running batteries
  • Steve Jobs didn’t just invent another smart phone, but a vast applications platform and ecosystem for consumers to satisfy a myriad of needs, even empowering companies with a mechanism for delivery of services and an easy way to be paid

You can tell you need help if your team is saying things like “too soon” or “too expensive” when it comes to innovation. There may be a cost that goes into staying ahead of the curve, but companies no longer can rely on their name and legacy alone. Rome fell, and many behemoth companies will too. So word of advice if your strategy does not equate to innovation and execution: get alarmed, get proactive, get a fresh perspective, call in new resources.

About the Author

Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan is CEO of the Association of Interim Executives. He has been launching and growing companies and helping other entrepreneurs do the same for 20 years. His first company, Online Access, put him on Inc. magazine’s Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies. Online Access, the first Internet-coverage magazine in the world, ran for 10 years and after its sale Jordan took on interim CEO assignments and authored the book "How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America"