Does Strategy Still Matter?

Becky Morehouse

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As our clients face increased competition not only for market share, but for the necessary resources of dollars, time, and talent, we are often asked if strategy still matters.

The answer is both “no” and “yes”—depending how you conceptualize strategy.

How Do You Define Strategy?

If your conception of strategy focuses on expansion, wanting to offer more programs and be in more geographies with the hope of attracting more students, then the answer is “no.” Unfortunately, many schools are too quickly enticed by the fast answer and will eventually have their efforts rendered less effective than they could be due to this definition of strategy.  

This issue with this definition is that it leads schools down the road of doing more rather than doing right. Instead of differentiating from competitors, schools can end up advertising with a sense of “sameness.” The result? Wasted opportunities and squandered resources on the inside and confusion outside in the marketplace.

However, if your definition of strategy revolves around the words “compelling” and “focus” then the answer is “yes,” strategy still matters.

Creating a Sustainable Structure for Strategy

A friend of mine once told me the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second-best time is today. The same can be said of strategy—it’s almost never too late for the application of sound strategy, especially when two important ideas are at its center: it should be compelling and focused.

What Does it Mean to Have a Compelling Strategy?  

Being compelling doesn’t simply mean being different from your competitors. Rather, it’s about highlighting differences from competitors in ways that matter. In other words, in ways that your students will pay for and donors will support.

Michael Porter offers a useful term for this kind of differentiation: “competitive advantage.” A competitive advantage is a bankable, enduring point of differentiation that fits squarely within your mission and you have the resources not only to sustain, but to enhance and improve. Ideally, a competitive advantage is also something your competitors either cannot or will not do.

How to Focus Your Strategy

On the inside of your organization, focus means letting go. It means identifying and reducing or even eliminating programs, events, and activities that are no longer strategically beneficial. It also means identifying the programs, events, and activities that are truly strategic. Then supporting them with the newly available resources to maximize your competitive advantage.

Outside of your organization, focusing your strategy enhances your brand awareness. It’s always easier to be known in your most important audiences’ minds for fewer things than many. This is especially true when those things are of almost obvious interest.

While centering your strategy around being compelling and focused will have a rapid, dramatic impact on institutional health, it is important to note that this process will not be painless.

Any change in strategy is political. That’s why it is important to use solid, defendable research early on to identify issues and opportunities and later, to assess progress. While research will never eliminate tough decisions, it does give you more confidence when those decisions are made.

Ready to start developing or executing a compelling strategy? Let’s chat. Drop me an email or call: 319.861.5108.

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