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Strategy Is More Short-Term Than You Think

Coming up with new strategies is easy. Executing them takes tireless effort and daily diligence.

One thing that frustrates me about the word “strategy” is that it implies something big. Sure, strategy is both important and broad reaching, but it is really nothing more than a series of steps.It’s the things you do (and don’t do) on a daily basis that, in aggregate, impact your team’s culture, productivity, and business model. So, when it comes to executing “strategy,” we should really just dive into the details of our day-to-day.

Herein lies the problem: The more efficient we are, the more difficult it is to change the steps we take every day.  Even with a big bold strategy in mind, we’re hesitant to take any unfamiliar steps in our workflow. For every decision we cite precedence, always opting for a familiar step – thus failing to charter new territory.

Especially in larger organizations, we’re told to shift strategy without changing our processes – and the steps we take every day. This is why large companies fail to innovate. It is hard to take new steps because each one defies some rule or precedent for how we make day-to-day decisions. Marketing will tell you that your new approach doesn’t fit with branding standards. Legal will say that it needs to be done the usual way. The IT department will say that we’ve always used another type of software for that. Operations will say that we have a procedure in place that has worked for the past five years, why change it?

It is hard to take new steps because each one defies some rule or precedent for how we make day-to-day decisions.
Before you know it, the steps you were taking to implement a broad strategy – true innovation – have all been replaced by the status quo. Other departments, your corporate (or client’s) guidelines, and seemingly small logistical impediments have hacked away at your vision. What you had in your mind’s eye – the innovation you imagined – becomes something completely unremarkable.

Leaders of change recognize that a great strategy is made up of many steps that, on their own, don’t make sense and often break conventional norms. To innovate, you must advocate for and preserve the unordinary steps required to create something extraordinary.

The lesson here is that the “big idea” is the easy part. Large companies usually know where they need to go to stay on the cutting edge, but they don’t have the fortitude and flexibility to take the right steps to get there. The necessary steps are diverted by the usual steps, otherwise known as protocol. When you only take familiar steps, you don’t travel far.

A great strategy is made up of many steps that, on their own, don’t make sense.

As you seek to implement a bold new strategy, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Eliminate the bias towards “precedent” when you’re building something new. New strategy warrants unprecedented action.
  • Don’t let the new steps you must take be overridden by legal, branding, impatience, or other logistics. While it may seem easy to give in on the little details, any little turn off the road points you in a new direction. Only thing that should override strategy is better strategy.
  • Keep reiterating “why” you’re pursuing change, and the consequences for not changing. Sometimes, especially in established businesses, the consequences of not changing are more motivating than the goals.

How about you?

How do you execute on strategy in the short term?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (23)
  • ❝Mat Rosa❞

    Really like the way you’ve made this statement – at my company we took an huge leap of faith to innovate over the course of a year but it took constant reiteration of the consequence coupled with minute decisions to push away the old in order to do so, all the while trying to maintain semblance of the core business. It’s a tough occupation.

  • Ernie

    After the month I’ve had, this is extremely helpful insight. Thank you.

  • John Doe

    What you’re referring to is known as tactics in the military sense.

  • Andrew Hanelly

    I like to phrase it this way: “There is no big idea, only the cumulative effect of many small ideas.”

  • Eric Weaver

    I have to disagree, Scott – I’d add that strategy starts with a deep understanding of where one is, followed by a smart & meaningful effort to determine where one is going, BEFORE devising the steps to get there. We can start walking in any direction, but without knowing where we are, and without having a compass point, the steps could waste time, money and focus, and run out of resources to actually achieve the goal.

    The challenge is getting the entire organization to buy into a strategy, hence your points above. To me, that’s much more challenging, and much more fun. 🙂

  • Maria Falvey

    “We have a procedure in place that has worked for the past five years, why change it?” Ugh! If I had a dollar for each time I hear that, I’d retire tomorrow. Thanks for this timely post – quite handy for me.

  • Paul Jarvis

    My strategy is constant experimentation and iteration. And it always works (eventually…).

  • Aaron Morton

    They are similar and tend to interchange in their meaning. The communications master & ex-spin doctor to Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell would have an approach that went like this: Objective-strategy-tactics and I like that format because of its approach of ‘chunking down’. So if you are a blogger for example you could say:

    objective: To become an authority in the area of happiness.

    Strategy: Create relationships with the current top figures in this field

    Tactics: Write a guest blog post a week and Write two articles for my own blog a week.

    So you can see the chunking down process. The problem that most people have with strategy is they mistake it for a tactic and have their strategy as an abstract statement (to lead our industry with integrity and quality) that means nothing so don’t ultimately end up with any actionable steps.

    Take care
    Aaron Morton
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Aaron Morton

    Yep and I suspect that line was aired in the headquarters of a number of ‘bricks and mortar’ shops that are now getting demolished by online businesses!

    Sad and I think it has a bit of the cognitive bias ‘argument of authority’; if the head bigwigs say it, it must be true!

    take care,


  • Aaron Morton

    There is no denying this is a corporate market. With ease of travel they have more opportunity to be global, the capital to be able to do that, and the top accountant to tell them how to distribute their cash to tax havens.

    However your article points out beautifully what edge the smaller brands have by utilising their creativity; the flexibility to do what corporates can’t do. A smaller brand can implement faster to consumer trends and adapt when things change. I think if more people understood that and used sites like this to make full use of that creativity it could lead to a lot of innovation.

    Thanks Scott,

    The Confidence Lounge

  • bassamtarazi

    I like to do something I call “up periscope”. I set out on a path for 30 days (or so) and then I check in with myself to see if what I predicted actually is taking place. Strategy is just a hypothesis that needs to be tested in some manner.

    So you set a vision out in the future, what I call “your illusionary company” and you start walking in that cardinal direction. But only through little bets and validated learning do you start to learn if that direction needs to be tweaked at all. That analysis is done in an “up periscope” analysis:

    – Where are we?
    – What have we learned?
    – Do we still believe in the direction we started out going? Why/Why not?

    – Based on all of this, Is there a new coordinate we should adjust our path towards?

    Then, lower periscope and push forward.

  • Scott Belsky

    Good comparison.

  • Scott Belsky

    Great way to approach it. I like the point about testing/iterating.

  • Scott Belsky

    This site, and every post we put up, are steps toward that very strategy.

  • Scott Belsky

    I wish larger companies could employ a similar tactic.

  • David McGuigan

    This blew my mind. Amazing. I’m going to print it out and throw it near my workstation.

  • Brian Ty Graham

    I fully agree with this article. I’m taking the approach of using a facebook page as a better blogging-like tool that allows me to post with a hint of social there. My project is to define a product that creates a better way to share online. Most do not realize that the internet is made up of a lot of search results wrapped into designs. There is few if any design that is made for sharing rather than being found. You can find my research and where I am putting my strategy in my idea at I love this article. So timely.

  • bassamtarazi

    Glad you enjoyed, David!

  • Jen Vertanen

    I’m a Scrum Master by trade so tend to think in very agile, nimble, short-term ways while always keeping the longer-term vision/strategy in mind. As such, I also do retrospectives often to determine where I need to course-correct and adjust…the adjustment may need to be done on what I’m focusing on currently or it may mean I need to adjust my strategy because something has changed along the way. I sound so nerdy when I put it like this, lol.

    But truly – I wholeheartedly believe you can execute strategy in the short-term…I do it and see it being done all the time.

  • Krish

    My experience suggests Strategy is Long Term while Tactics is Short Term. Strategy is about getting the larger purpose clear and thereafter crafting /back working the shorter ‘steps’ to lead you there, not the other way around. Just taking short steps even efficientlly will not deliver the Strategy in mind. Those who do not understand that these apparent short steps (back worked) are leading you where you want to go, are not in the know of the ‘strategic Intent’ of the corporate in question.
    Cheers, Krish

  • Chris Stadler

    I agree, Eric. This reminds me of the “working hypothesis.” In other words, what does your initial, quick research and gut feeling tell you? This way, you have a research question. Then you just have to be good at getting answers.

    The working hypothesis, of course, adjusts with new information.

  • Xavier

    Fantastic Perspective on how Long Term Strategy blends with Short Term action! Couldn’t agree with you more, Krish.

  • Alberto Salvia Novella

    This article is just brilliant!

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