“Growth Strategy”

Put these two words together and they have a nice ring to them.  It seems almost comforting.  Yes, a growth strategy, that’s what I want for my business.  It just seems logical.  We either stay the same and die or we grow and get stronger. It’s that simple.

Not so fast.  You see saying you have a growth strategy really isn’t a strategy at all.  Strategy is about the choices your organization is prepared to make in order to stand out against competitors.  In that context, if your organization claims to have a growth strategy, does ‘growth’ provide customers with a way to distinguish you from your competitors?  Now, don’t get me wrong growth can certainly be a desired outcome for your business strategy.  However, a strategy declared as growth is not going to get you anywhere close to actual growth.  Growth may be the desired outcome but only actual strategies, based on hard choices, will be the difference that gets you there.

A sports analogy makes the case against growth as a strategy apparent.  It’s easy for me to relate to sports analogies since I was once a high school basketball coach. So bear with me.

Imagine the locker room of a small-town team somewhere in the Midwest getting ready to play a perennial powerhouse team from the big city.  The coach comes in and his players are all sitting waiting for his words of wisdom for tonight’s game.  They’re nervous because the team they’re playing is a 3-time state champion due mostly to their two 6 ft. 10-inch All-Everything players. The small-town team has one player listed as 6 ft 1 inch as their tallest teammate but everyone knows Sam is really 5 ft 11 inches tall. In the first version of this analogy, one of the small-town coach’s players asks him, “Coach what’s the strategy for tonight’s game?”  The coach looks over his players and says, “We are going to score more points than them.”  WHAT!? That’s the same response you should have if your leaders say, “Our strategy is growth.”

In the alternate version, the small-town coach responds instead with an actual strategy, “Well we know that their strength is in the half-court game.  They have the two big guys that are going to own the paint. We are short, really short, but we are fast and better conditioned. So, we are going to play to our strengths, not theirs.  We are going to put full-court pressure on them.  In order for that to be successful, we need to take smart high percentage shots so we can set them up in our press.  We need to fast break and push the ball up the court so they have difficulty setting up their half-court defense.  This will also tire out the two big guys and will force their coach to substitute for them.”  Now, that is strategy.  The coach acknowledged the hard strategic choices the team was going to have to make and the strategy informs how they must execute in order to differentiate and be successful against their competition. Not we’re going to score more points, but how we are going to score more points.

The same is true for your business’s strategy.  Not we’re going to grow, but we’re going to grow by doing x,y, and z in the context of competing against A, B, and C.  As Michael Porter puts it, “The essence of strategy is that you must set limits on what you’re trying to accomplish.”  Setting those limits or, as I see it accepting those limits, leads a company to discover strategic success.

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