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

26 Comments on “The Difference Between a Strategy, a Plan, and a Process

  1. Wonderfully explained. Delivered idea in understandable way

  2. i now understand the different between  a strategy and plan …………when  say thax 

  3. i understood now the difference between the a strategy and plan

    • such a profound and articulated explanation. Thanks 

  4. Amazingly clear, chapeau.

  5. Thanks for the attempt to distinguish between the words “plan” and “strategy.” Unfortunately your assignment of strategy to “what” and plan to “how” does not agree with most dictionaries. Most dictionaries define a strategy as a high-level plan. In other words, a strategy is a plan. It is not something that is different from a plan as you have suggested.

  6. An excellent paper. The dictionaries that define this differently are not correct. In my endeavors I have always believed that planning was and should be the process of setting goals and objectives. Once those were set with their KPI’s and the CSF’s agreed, then a strategy to achieve them can be formulated, that is the project plan. However, when the strategy is being formulated, there are often issues that will impact the original plan that require resetting, especially the objectives and even KPI’s and CSF’c. The point being, that the two processes are connected. There must be a means of communication and re-evaluation of a project because conditions and situations change and if not reviewed as to their impact on a strategy or a plan (cost, resourcing, market conditions etc.) the whole strategy will not deliver the objective, especially if it has changed This is where sponsorship and project management skills are required including constant review and reporting. There fore one should consider that there are three intertwine processes; Objective Setting with the desired results, Strategy where the way to get there and how to measure it within the budgeted resources (money, people, time, output) are set; The Project with its milestones and management to achieve the objectives, i.e. the doing portion. One may consider these three processes may all considered to part of the “Planning Process” and all three are alive and working until the final objective is met.

  7. Thank you Robert I got you objectivelly..thank you very much

  8. Got it – the strategy is the long term objective for which you develop an implementation plan with risk assessment and mitigation. Working on my MBA and was having difficulty understanding the difference between the long term objective and the strategy.

  9. Cassius
    The concepts are really confusing, like mission, vision and values so interrelated

  10. The term “strategic plan” is an annoying piece of bullshit bingo often spouted by management consultants. There is no difference between a strategy and a plan.

    • thanks Cynical sid –
      1 – The term ‘strategic plan’ does not appear in this post.
      2 – I’m guessing that you mean that the term ‘strategy’ is a type of plan – is that right?
      Clearly in general usage they are different.
      3 – Also Cynical sid, it is always delightful to have people comment on the blog but disappointing when they feel theneed to hide behind anonymity and it does beg the question as to why…
      4 – Seth Godin has some thoughts in a post today –

  11. Would it therefore be fair to say that a Strategy could and most likely will consist of a number of plans. To travel from (A) to (B) is most unlikely to be straight line and to conquer each set or block en-route may require separate plans to achieve each stage!

  12. Very Well explained… fantastic,,, Thanks for detail & clear explaination

  13. Yes this really helped me to understand the differences. Too many times people use these concentration incorrectly. Like calling something a strategic plan.

  14. The three concepts are very briefly and delicately explained . . . .
    An extraordinary effort. . .
    Keep it up. . .
    Good Luck. . . 🙂

  15. Quite amazing to spot the three differences beween “Strategy, Plan and Process(es)” today.

    Thanks to Duncan.

    And Jim, David, Warner and Nick for your kind and splendid contributions.

    Keep it up mates.

  16. Thanks this makes it a lot easier to understand

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