Being More Strategic in Work (and Monopoly)

Stick around the workplace long enough and you will probably be told, or tell someone else, you need to be more strategic. This suggestion is rarely accompanied by an explanation of what is meant by strategy or being strategic. Turning to the literature on strategy for clarity will likely create more confusion. Most of the strategic literature is complex or esoteric and too characterized by vast disagreement to be helpful.

Let’s try demystifying strategy, for at least the length of this article, by relating it to the problems of Monopoly. By Monopoly I don’t mean the exclusive control of the supply or trade in a commodity or service. I mean that struggle between Dog, Shoe, and Battleship for control of the Atlantic City board game.

What does strategy mean? There is an enormous academic debate around this term which began as a military reference. The Greek word strategos was sometimes defined as the art of the general and referred to the conduct of an entire military campaign versus this or that particular battle. While that may be interesting for Battleship, when Dog is trying to beat Shoe, Dog just needs to think of strategy as my approach to getting what I want in the entire game (campaign), not just this trip around the board.

Typically, what Dog ultimately wants is to win, which obviously entails beating Battleship and Shoe. Strategy, like Monopoly and military battles, is inherently about competition. (It is a strange extension of the term to talk about your strategy for non-competitive ventures like planning your family vacation or remodeling the kitchen.) As we will see, the fact that the context for strategy is competition has significant ramifications for what it means to be strategic.

In both Monopoly and strategy “the good is the enemy of the great.”

So, how can Dog beat Battleship and Shoe? One way Dog can win is to be a lucky Dog—roll the dice, buy everything she lands on, and hope it all works out. This gather all the good stuff approach is how most children approach a game like Monopoly. It is also how a shocking number of department heads, business leaders, organizations, and consultants approach strategy. Identify a fairly random set of good things, call them priorities, and bundle them together—voila, you allegedly have a strategy! (There are many popular strategic planning programs constructed on this deeply misguided process.) Unfortunately, this typically does not work any better in Monopoly than it does in business. Good things may be good but that does not mean gathering them all up is a reasonable strategy. In both Monopoly and strategy “the good is the enemy of the great.”

A few other things are missing in this roll, buy, and hope approach: most notably analysis, differentiation, hard decisions, and alignment. First, Dog needs to analyze the strategic situation. If the game is just starting, roll and buy is reasonable. But, unless you are in the starting phase of a start-up, the game is always in progress. A situational assessment is important. What strengths does Dog have? What strengths do Battleship and Shoe have. Does Dog have a wad of cash? Does Battleship have a good set of high ROI properties? Being strategic means carefully analyzing your position and the competitions’ position. If you want to be more strategic, start studying the business landscape. Study your organization. Study the competition.

If you want to be more strategic, start studying the business landscape. Study your organization. Study the competition.

Second, differentiate! Effective strategies almost always rely on differentiating oneself from the competition. If Shoe is starting to collect expensive properties (those swanky lots on the same street as Boardwalk), maybe a head-to-head battle for the high-end customer is not Dog’s winning strategy. But, wining quick with low-end properties before Shoe can complete a capital-intensive, long-game strategy may be a great option. As Harvard professor and strategy guru Michael Porter suggests “the essence of strategy is choosing to do things differently than rivals.” If you want to be more strategic, understand how your organization can effectively differentiate its offerings from the competition.

Our third point is not a step but an imperative. Focus! Dog cannot play multiple strategies at once and expect to win. In Monopoly there are a small number of coherent strategies, arguably three. You can focus on high-end properties, low-end properties, or the highest ROI properties. What you typically cannot do is play all three and hope to win. As Peter Drucker famously said about strategy, “The worst thing you can do is a bit of everything.” Perhaps surprisingly, just like in Monopoly, there are a fairly small number of coherent business strategies. Porter suggests there are three: strategies based on customers’ needs, customers accessibility, or the variety of a company’s products and services.

In my experience working with organizations trying to be strategic, success depends on the leaders’ willingness to make hard choices.

Focus implies choice. If you want to be strategic, you will have to make some choices. Unfortunately, these will be Sophie’s choices. Just like Dog mortgaging Park Place, you will have to sacrifice good things that do not support your strategy. In my experience working with organizations trying to be strategic, success depends on the leaders’ willingness to make hard choices. In Good Strategy; Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt insists good strategy almost always entails moving beyond consensus. Making a strategic choice means you are saying no to good ideas, and many of those good ideas come with good people attached who have built their department or career around Park Place.

Once a core strategy is determined, the work of alignment begins. On the Monopoly board this is relatively easy. Once Dog makes the decision to play a low-end, quick win strategy, she needs to align (virtually) all activities to that end. This means not just mortgaging Park Place, but possibly using the proceeds to buy railroads and utilities which fit this low capital investment strategy. It may entail trading high-end properties for low end properties—even taking a (temporary) loss—to more quickly build a block of low-end houses. It may involve waiting in the relative safety of jail once those houses are built. It will certainly involve not buying attractive, expensive, or high ROI properties. As Costas Markides maintains, “Strategy must put all our choices together in a re-enforcing mosaic.” This is true even if the mosaic creates the image of a slum lord. So, if you want to be more strategic, ask yourself, “How can all the various work you do align to your core strategy?”

There is more to strategy than analysis, differentiation, focus, hard decisions, and alignment, but practicing those steps with discipline will take you a long way in a board game, the board room, or simply toward becoming more strategic.

-- Ryan