State Your Strategy In A Sentence

Lately I’ve become fond of asking a deceptively simple question of senior leaders: “What’s your strategy?”

I ask it in a rather informal and nonchalant way, then brace myself to hear something that rarely answers my question. On one end of the spectrum, I get a medley of purpose, vision, and mission-like responses. On the other end I get blank stares, shoulder shrugs, and head scratches. Somewhere in the middle I’ll get a response akin to either “we have a detailed strategic plan” or “we don’t really have a strategy.”

Rarely do I get a crisp, clear answer in single sentence. Perhaps this is why so many people, mostly in large organizations, complain about a crisis of clarity.

It’s got me thinking about “The Sentence.” Now, if you don’t know the story of The Sentence…

As Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal put it a few years ago:

“The Sentence comes from a story [journalist and pioneering Congresswoman] Clare Booth Luce told about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She told him, she said, that ‘a great man is one sentence.’ His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. ‘He preserved the union and freed the slaves,’ or, ‘He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.’ You didn’t have to be told ‘Lincoln’ or ‘FDR.’ She wondered what Kennedy’s sentence would be. She was telling him to concentrate, to know the great themes and demands of his time and focus on them. It was good advice. History has imperatives, and sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are met, and sometimes not. When they’re clear and met, you get quite a sentence.”

It’s a legacy sentence. A retrospective, and focuses on the past. But I think the same logic can apply to strategy, which is focused on the future. That is, to steal Clare Booth Luce’s words, a great strategy is a sentence.

Let’s give it a go.

If you follow my blog you know my approach to strategy is the one I learned from Roger Martin, as contained in his book, Playing To Win. His strategic framework is an integrated cascade of five key questions: What is our winning aspiration? Where will we play? How will we win? What capabilities do we need? What management systems must we have?

To state your strategy in a sentence, though, you really just need the first three parts: winning aspiration, where to play, and how to win. The simple mad lib plug-n-play is basically some version of this:

Achieve [Winning Aspiration] in [Where To Play] by [How To Win].

Your winning aspiration needs to spell out a clear win. It needs to be future-oriented, ambitious, and specific (thus measurable), contain a competitive element, and avoid a play-to-play goal. Your where-to-play needs some element of segmentation. Your how-to-win needs to capture your unique value proposition, your competitive advantage.

Here are some quick examples:

Capture the U.S. luxury performance sedan market by offering higher quality and competitive design for one-third less.

Have a top-ranked 5-star property in every market that will support a luxury hotel by providing a home-away-from-home, office-away-from-office experience.

Capture the short-haul air travel market with high-frequency flights and efficient service to secondary airports at a price that rivals driving.

Become the global leader in kidney disease treatment on the basis of biopharmaceutical research excellence.

Win the Wimbledon men’s singles title with an attacking serve-and-volley game.

You probably don’t need to be told “Lexus,” “Four Seasons,” “Southwest Airlines,” “Amgen,” or “Pete Sampras.”

Try it. State your strategy in a sentence. Done right, it prompts the questions of capabilities and systems you’ll need to produce the win you aspire to in the space you’ve chosen. It begs strategy’s magic question: what must be true for this strategy to a good one?

Share your sentence with those in your charge. Watch the glazed looks evaporate. Watch people sign up for the win.

Then when some smart-aleck strategy facilitator asks you what your strategy is, you can look him squarely in the eyes and lay him flat in a single breath.

Now that is a win.