When Strategy Usurps Planning

Clive Rushton, October 2014


I’ve read 59 books in the last 12 months while studying for an MA in Leading Innovation and Change.  Throw in a multitude of papers, articles and forum posts and my self- description of, “I read voraciously” seems about right.

Two ‘businessy’ things tainted my literary appetite, however: the plethora of recycled concepts and the confusion surrounding the key ones.

I am cynical about the recycling. In order to publish another book or to have another article published in prestigious journals authors simply rewrite the same ideas and advice from a slightly different angle. It’s understandable but I’m not sure it’s excusable. Publishing what is basically the same book or article under a different heading may be good business for the author but it surely is a slight on the intended audience who are treated to this regurgitated repetition. If they didn’t understand it the first time around are they stupid or was it badly explained?

Leadership and management; improvement, innovation and invention; creativity and change: each combination spawns article after article purporting to define and explain but all they do is obfuscate and confuse.

The confusion, of course, lends itself to the repetition. It’s in the consultant’s interest to maintain a sense of ignorance in their audience. Actually educating people releases them from the teacher’s grasp.

Undoubtedly the most confused pairing is planning and strategy. Strategy, particularly, has reached the dizzy heights of a ‘must use’ word; it appears everywhere and every time from everyone.

Here’s my definition of the two culprits: planning is about performance, strategy is about results. The two are irrevocably connected but they are not synonymous.

In one of my term papers I wrote, Many authors cite The Economist’s, [“Nobody really knows what strategy is”], but then use thousands of words doing little more than unequivocally proving they are not the one to prove The Economist wrong!”

To understand strategy I had to first understand planning. My swim coaching background taught me a lot about planning. Athletes have to produce precise performances on a predetermined day under conditions over which they have little influence, with win-loss tolerances of around 0.02%. It’s not Six-Sigma precision but when human frailties, and idiosyncrasies and peculiarities are involved, compounded by the near-infinite complexities of water turbulence, the challenge is at least equal.

Sporting analogies sit well with businessmen but are seldom comfortable in academic settings. They are, however, entirely appropriate and eminently practical. Sport planning has to be comprehensive structured, logical and systematic, and in all those areas the quality has to be exceptional. It must describe and prescribe a process just like a business plan should, or a plan for world domination could.

The goal of a plan should be a particular level of performance. A swimmer may have a goal time of one minute forty-five seconds for 200 meters so the plan has to address the technical and physiological requirements of that speed and distance. But what if your opposition is developing a superior product? What if the opposing swimmers are capable of swimming faster than one minute forty-five? In that case three options are available: settle for a loss, change the plan, or disrupt the opposition: purpose, planning, strategy.

The first option is about purpose: not winning the swimming race yet achieving the goal time may be OK for a developing athlete but for one at the pinnacle of a career it is an unacceptable option. Move to option B: changing the plan. A correct decision here is pivotal; one which could make or break the whole season or define a career.

In the same way that a single, defining line of film script, or a piece of decisive action or dialogue in a novel changes everything, this binary ‘yes or no’ approach to option B tips the balance between success and failure. In a film or book this occurs at exactly the half-way point and seals the story-line for the remaining half of the story. Option B is the half-way point between accepting the loss and demanding the win.

Of course, it begs the question; if a faster performance is possible why was the swimmer settling for one minute forty-five in the first place? On the other hand, if the coach and swimmer assess their capabilities as limited to one minute forty-five then option C – disrupting the opposition – is the only one left.

Option C is strategy.

Strategy is about the result. On his best day our swimmer is capable of one minute forty-five seconds – that’s a performance – but the opposition is capable of faster and the opposition wins – that’s a result. To change the result we have to disrupt the performance of the opposition. We have to make the opposition underperform; we have to deliberately undermine them.

Strategy is most useful when the opposition has a better hand of cards than you do. Strategy is about manipulating the opposition into playing at a lower level than they are really capable of. Strategy is about ‘blindsiding’ the opposition, attacking them at their weakest point. Strategy is about tricking them into naive moves, premature launches of untested products, cutting off their source of supply. Lawrence Freedman says, “It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.” 1

Strategy is a game, sometimes cut-throat, always serious. Strategy is a ploy or a maneuver, otherwise why not just use planning and create a superior performance?

A strategy has to be different to, or more than, a plan. Otherwise it’s a plan. A plan delineates the qualities, characteristics and requirements necessary to move from the current performance level to the goal performance level. Purpose is about the ‘why’; the basic components of a plan are the ‘whats’ and the ‘whens’ and the ‘wheres’. Strategy is about the ‘how’.

And this is where the confusion leads to business mistakes, disasters and catastrophes. Many authors transpose these adverbs and attribute strategy to the what and the when and the where. They prioritize the outcome over the process and become blinded by the shiny possibilities of their short-term thinking. They underestimate the importance of process, of systems, of the ‘connective tissue’ between cause and effect, and of the arrow of time; they ignore the reality of demand for continual nurturing of the organizational organism. Their strategy usurps their planning and they undermine their own systems and methods.

Goals do not have to differ for opposing strategies to be appropriate. A surgeon and a butcher both need to cut through muscle. The surgeon’s purpose is to access internal organs or bones, the butcher’s purpose is to separate sections of flesh for cooking. Both of them look for a clean cut with the least possible collateral damage. Same muscle structure; same tools; same cutting action but completely different strategies: the surgeon cuts with the grain of the muscle fibers, the butcher cuts across the fibers.

Some successful strategies are completely counter-intuitive. My wife and I possess a stubborn cooking pan which refuses to give up its grime and stickiness. My solution to ensure a clean pan – dirty it more often!

The more often the pan is dirtied, the more often it gets cleaned and the nearer it gets to ‘clean’. That’s strategy. The goal is to have a clean pan; the plan is to get it clean faster; the strategy is to get it dirtier more often. It isn’t a ‘business’ solution but it is a solution contrived to continue satisfactory business.

Successful organizations, businesses, stock market analysts, sports scientists and coaches accurately analyze the internal and external factors affecting their particular situation and strategize to control or favorably change one or both of them, producing a more efficient (external), more effective (internal) or more responsive (external-internal interaction) system. The long term organizational plan should increase performance but the short term strategy is often to undermine, attack or destroy the opposition.

Analysis comes with ever-increasing sophistication but generally boils down to SWOT. Many companies, however, restrict their examination to navel-gazing; they only analyze themselves. Visionary leaders, however, examine and understand the opposition. An athlete’s strategic competition model should obviously maximize their own strengths but it should also seek to negate their opponents’ strengths. Weaknesses should be circumvented in themselves and mercilessly attacked in their opponents; opportunities should be sought out and welcomed, yet limited, constrained or denied to your opponents; threats to oneself should be neutralized but threats to an opponent should be encouraged and supported.

Recognizing and acting appropriately on this analysis – displaying response-ability – are hallmarks of outstanding leadership. Planning for performance indicates involvement and good intentions, strategizing for results demands commitment and execution. It all depends on how much you demand the win.

  1. Freedman, L., 2013. Strategy: A History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rushton vs Phelps

Rushton versus Phelps

An email from Elliot Rushton to his parents and siblings.

Elliot CAN 10k

On Thursday John and I went up to the University of Michigan. John talked to the Women’s coach and observed their dryland to compare to ours (they were designed by the same guy). I was to gain the worldly experience of swimming with the Men’s team.

The varsity team was doing relay starts mid-way through practice, so they said it would be better for me to swim with the Club Wolverine guys. We introduced ourselves to Jon Urbanchek who just hangs out and keeps the CW guys occupied so that Bowman can deal with the varsity team. Urbanchek was incredibly friendly, but still had this devilish look about him that made you think he was a pint-sized Satan.

The CW guys there that day were Andrew Hurd (Canadian record holder in the 400 Free, who I knew already), Klete Keller, Michael Phelps and Ben Michaelson (NCAA Division 2 record holder in the 100 Free and 100 Fly). I didn’t recognize who Ben was until a bit later, so when Urbanchek introduced me to the group by saying “Guys, this is Elliot…. Elliot, that’s Michael and that’s Klete, we call him Cleteus.” it didn’t really help. Because, I mean, who the hell doesn’t know who those two guys are?

So off we go. Warm up was an 800 done as 50 free, 50 stroke. Lane one is Keller, lane two is Hurd, lane three myself, lane four Phelps, and lane five Michaelson.

My logic on this set was as follows: I don’t want to look like a chump, and I’m next to the world record holder in the IMs. So I should obviously do backstroke on the stroke 50’s and pretty quickly so that they don’t have to wait for me. However after 200 yards or so my logic quickly turned to: “Holy crap how do they move so slowly? I’d better do the slowest, ugliest breaststroke I can so as not to win warm-up.” A little later it also evolved to include sitting on the bottom of the pool every 50 and waiting them out.

Alas, despite my best efforts I won warm-up. Urbanchek runs over to me and says “You beat them!” still not sure of what was going on I replied “Uhhh, yeah. Maybe I miscounted?

  • Next: 16 x 50 Kick: 4 on :50, 4 on :45.

We’re just kicking along. I’m listening to them joke back and fourth about nothing, insulting each other, etc.. Phelps likes to stop constantly and smack his board down on the water to make a smacking sound. Keller tries to do it when we’re at the wall but can’t get the angle right and has very little sound. Urbanchek taunts him “Cleteus, that sounds pretty feminine, keep up the good work.” After a few 50s Urbanchek gets bored and realizes that I’ve been beating Phelps.

Michael, what the [expletive deleted]? He’s Div. 3!! You’re letting a Div 3 swimmer beat you? You pussy!!” We do some more 50’s.

I’d lost count. Not sure if we were on number 12 or 13, I kind of had to watch and see when everyone else left while also watching the clock.

Phelps leaves, so apparently we just did one on :45. After I push off I realize he’s still at the wall laughing, taunting me “I got you!!” Obviously feeling a bit stupid, but realizing my way out I look at him and say “Did you?” This ruins the whole set now. Apparently I was the only one paying attention to the interval. Now all five of us are floating around on our kickboards trying to figure out how many we have left and when we should leave.

  • 400 IM: 50 drill, 50 swim.

Phelps yells “On the bottom!!” but everyone but me leaves at random. Not me though, oh no. I had a plan. I was going to email you all and tell you I had beaten Michael Phelps at a head to head 400 IM in practice. Sure, he would be going easy and half of it was drill, but I could still say “I beat Michael Phelps at a 400 IM head-to-head” without lying.

I still had to act casual though. I couldn’t make it apparent I was being a jerk. I did the fastest smoothest single arm fly I could, and the lamest backstroke drill, with my arm barely pausing at the top of the stroke. I had a huge lead at the half. However, no matter how easy Phelps goes and how un-easy I go on breaststroke we’re still a little unbalanced. Going into the freestyle we were dead even. For the whole first 300 I was laughing my ass off while swimming. Thinking how funny I could make this email sound and how I could boast about it for the rest of my life. Barely dragging the nail of my middle finger on finger-tip drag freestyle I noticed something un-ordinary:

Phelps was trying. Oh shit. He was kicking and had picked his stroke rate up. I was boned. I picked it up a little, still trying to NOT look like I was trying to usurp the world record holder. Blatantly obvious by this point was the fact that Phelps knew what I was up to; apparently he takes pride in the 400 IM. He finishes with me a stroke behind, I’m laughing uncontrollably now, I just got beaten at being a jerk by the world record holder. As soon as I finish Phelps yells in my face “I WIN!!“.

  • 2 x (400 Pull “casual”, 4 x 100 Pull on 1:05 “strong”)

Urbanchek finds me a pull-buoy and Phelps lends me his smaller paddles (Reds, he uses the Blues). I notice that he uses the wrist straps on them and consider teasing him about it: “Wrist straps ‘eh? I thought those were for little girls?” I decide against it as I didn’t want to anger him and motivate him to set a world record in some event I swim just to piss me off – which I wouldn’t put past him.

Distance and stroke swimmers break apart. Distance is Keller, Hurd and myself. Phelps, Michealson and Chuck Sayao, who came in late, do the stroke set.

  • 2 x (4 x 200 Pink @ 2:20, 3 x 200 Red @ 2:15, 2 x 200 Orange @ 2:10, 200

EZ @ 3:00)

Michigan uses a similar colour system to Kenyon, but that set above is written in Kenyon colours for the sake of your understanding. Urbanchek decides upon my “targets” for each 200 (what we call ‘zones’ at Kenyon). Around 2:01, 1:59 and 1:54 for the three colours; Hurd and Keller are to be around 1:51’s on the Orange 200s. (CR explanation for readers – these zones equate to aerobic overload, HR 150/155, anaerobic threshold, HR 160/165, lactate clearance, HR 170/185).

I wish I could tell you I held my own on this set, won my share of the 200’s against Keller and Hurd. I didn’t though. I did well, for me, hit my “target” every time, which was worth it just to hear Urbanchek say “Right on TARGET!” On the second round I figured I’d throw in whatever I had. My first 200 Orange on the second round was a 1:52 – “Below target! GREAT!!” Well, last one. I really threw in what I had left and busted out a 1:49. Good, for me, though from how far back I was it felt more like a 2:05. Keller won with a 1:42, and Hurd was just behind him with a 1:43. Urbanchek was thrilled because “America beat Canada!!!!” something he had been throwing around the whole set.

That was that. We warmed down and John and I drove back to Gambier.

I think it could have very well all been a dream.