Four Different Types of Strategy: Are You Pursuing the Right One?

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After a couple dozen meetings, the Committee Leaders developing portions of my higher education client’s long-term strategy gathered to share their work. What they presented was essentially a list of problems and fixes. This might pass for an acceptable strategy in some quarters, but not in this organization.

The process the Dean had put in place contributed to the problem. He wanted a lot of faculty involvement, but the beleaguered faculty used this opportunity to complain about credit-hour loads and lack of lab facilities. These were problems, yes, but far more was needed—at least in the Dean’s view. He wanted a strategy that held out a bold vision and ambitious goals.

The Dean put the strategy leaders back on track by doing two things: 1) assuring them that the day-to-day problems brought up by the faculty would be addressed in year-one of the new strategy, and 2) articulating a compelling case to grow the College's enrollment, its endowment, and even the moral imperative of getting their brand of education into the world. (They are a faith-based institution.)

To do this, the Dean used a  framework I shared with him that enabled him to make clear how making incremental repairs and addressing niggling problems would neither ensure the future nor position the College to live up to its potential. That framework was developed years ago by, Steve Wall who observed that there are four different types of strategy. It is an exceptionally useful construct, so I share it here.

Steve Wall calls the four types of strategy “strategic states.” Here’s Steve:

The Eagle is the Strategic State that seeks the new and the different; the “never tried that before.” It usually operates on its own and faces unpredictability with a smile. The Fort deals with “knowns” and the established. It seeks either to maintain what has been built and grow with the market, or to expand at the expense of others—grow market share. The Slim Down Strategic State focuses on reducing costs to become more competitive. It sees difficult times ahead and wants to be able to handle them. Circled Wagons sees danger at the gates which is life threatening, and must do something to survive the attack.

This language proved exceptionally useful to the Dean who said to the strategy leaders: “We need to pursue an Eagle strategy,” he said, “not a Fort strategy; we cannot rest on our laurels.” This had the effect of opening a window in a stuffy room: the Committee leaders had been feeling unable to get faculty out of the weeds and into the sky of visionary thinking.

It would be a mistake to think that there are only four types of strategies. Arguably, there are as many strategies as there are organizations. But when setting out to create a fresh strategy, it is extremely helpful to name the nature of the game you're playing. Is it time to break out of the mold and do something completely fresh and novel? This is the Eagle strategy. Is is time to consolidate gains? This is a Fort strategy. Is cost-reduction the name of the game? This is the Slim Down strategy. Is is time to hold on for dear life? Then Circled Wagons is what is called for.

What do you call the strategy are you pursuing? Is this the one you should be pursuing? Is this the best way to refer to it? In this case, the Dean's usage of the “Eagle strategy” moniker caught on and faculty began to catch themselves slipping back to Fort by saying, “We need an Eagle strategy. We can't rest on our laurels.”