The Difference Between a Strategy, a Plan, and a Process
I received a great question at an IP strategy training course I taught. The question was about the difference between a strategy, a plan, and a process. It came about because while we expect on paper most people could match these three words to their appropriate definitions, in practice, they get confused. So to address the definitions in practice, I thought it might be fun to examine their purpose for their employer.
A strategy is a solution to move from where you are now (A) to where you want to be (B)…or put another way, it is what you want to happen to achieve an end. Strategy is a class of solution that deals with uncertainty – the possibility that opposing forces may inhibit you reaching (B) or reaching it in acceptably good form.
A strategy should raise the probability that its employer will reach (B) in good form. It does so mostly by creating conditions that favor success. For example, a strategy can be that you will only support businesses where you can be a first or second tier player, where your objective (B) is to build a product solutions portfolio that fits that defined nature. Building a portfolio of first or second tier only product solutions is what you want to do. It is a solution to a problem associated with running a type of business that you determined third or less tier product solutions will not support. Your strategy does not specifically say how you will arrive at this end. That is where your plan comes in.
A plan is how you will move from (A) to (B). As such it should support your strategy by providing a way to reach (B) that provides an acceptable balance of risk and reward. So your strategy is what you want to do and your plan is how you will do it. For example, you may decide as a strategy that you need to acquire lots of patents in an area to help you maintain freedom of operation, and then your plan is how specifically you will do that…R&D, acquisition, license, etc. This is, of course, oriented on the level of organization you are dealing with. Company, divisional, team, and personal plans and strategies take place simultaneously, which creates issues of alignment that we can cover in a future post.
Understanding the difference between a strategy and a plan allows you to make useful strategic planning decisions that separate the two. It allows you to act in line with General George S. Patton’s insightful quote, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” You can include statements of intent within your planning so that when plans go wrong, which they often do, people can adjust their how-to-do-it (the plan) in a way that makes sense with what you want them to achieve (the strategy).
A process, in contrast, is a defined way of doing a task. It can be a linear in nature – do A, then do B, then do C – or it can have branches – do A, then B, and then C or D depending. A process sets strict parameters to the “how” that can, if misapplied, allow the “how” to take priority over the “what.”
Since a process is so anchored in the “how,” it can never be a strategy. If used well, a process can be an essential part of a strategy. For a strategist, the chief purpose of any process is to drive out uncertainties that do not need to be there within a plan. For example, no matter the strategy and plan you chose regarding IP, you want to anchor that strategy and plan on good IP. As a part of a strategy and plan you can set processes in place for idea review, documentation, and protection that assure you will have the quality of IP protection you need as circumstances arise. Then you can address all the uncertainties of what competitors, partners, and customers may do to challenge or advance your IP portfolio without also having undue uncertainty about whether you can present good IP documentation when you need it.
So when you do strategic planning for IP, you and consulted team members first determine what you want to do – your strategy. You next determine or appropriately delegate how you want to do it – your plan. You and your team then look at all the uncertainties associated with your strategy and plan with the mindset to drive out those uncertainties that do not need to be there. To drive out uncertainties, you may incorporate processes – often as simple as checklists – so that those executing your strategy can focus their talents where uncertainty remains. You do all of this in context with your opposition because you can win or lose any strategic contest on any or all or your strategies, plans, or processes.
Image credit: Hemera