Do you know the difference between a good strategy and a bad strategy? (Part IV – Objectives)


Share on LinkedIn

This is the fourth in the series of posts on strategy making using Richard Rumelt’s masterpiece: Good Strategy Bad Strategy. If you have not already done so then you may get value out of the reading the first three posts:

Do you know the difference between good strategy and bad strategy? (Part I)

Do you know the difference between good strategy and bad strategy? (Part II – Fluff)

Do you know the difference between good strategy and bad strategy? (Part I – Failing to face the problem)

What passes for strategy and strategy is so often simply muddled thinking or why so many websites generate a poor user experience

One thing that I have noticed is that so many websites are poor – from the users perspective. Why is that? I have my point of view which I pleased to see validated by Mark Adams of PortalTech Reply in the May edition of Internet Retailing:

“If your strategy, for example, is to use mobile to generate significant revenues the key considerations, technology choices and approach are going to be very different from setting out to use mobile as brand engagement channel…….. Often the strategy is to accommodate selling, loyalty, brand engagement, in-store integration, social marketing, payments and so on with no clear path on how each of these areas are going to be addressed and at what point.”

Sounds like a ‘dog’s dinner’ of aims/objectives masquerading as strategy to me. That got me thinking that it is worth sharing what Richard Rumelt has to say on the matter of aims, objectives and strategy.

What does Richard Rumelt say about aims, objectives and strategy?

Richard Rumelt says that strategic objectives are one domain that differentiates good strategy from bad strategy:

One of the challenges of being a leader is mastering this shift from having others define your goals to being the architect of the organisation’s purpose and objectives. To help clarify this distinction it is helpful to use the word “goal” to express overall values and desires and to use the word “objective” to denote specific operational targets……. Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes.

In his book, Rumelt identifies two pitfalls in the areas of objectives: ‘dog’s dinner objectives’; and ‘blue sky objectives’. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Dog’s dinner objectives

This is what Rumelt says (keep in mind my earlier comment on poor websites and the quote on mobile):

A long list of “things to do”, often mislabeled as “strategies” or “objectives”, is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders make suggestions as to things they would like to see done. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection into a “strategic plan”. Then, in recognition that it is a dog’s dinner, the label “long term” is added so that none of them need be done today.

I absolutely love this paragraph, it strikes as pointing at the ‘truth’ in a similar way to the Dilbert cartoons and leaves me saying “How true!”. How does it strike you?

Blue sky objectives

Back to Mr Rumelt and his wisdom on strategy:

“The second form of bad strategic objectives is one that is “blue sky”. A good strategy defines the critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and action, between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives a good strategy sets should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence.…… By contrast, a blue-sky objective is usually a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge. It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue as to how to get there.

The purpose of a good strategy is to offer a potentially achievable way of surmounting a key challenge. If the leader’s strategic objectives are just as difficult to accomplish as the original challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.”

Lets revisit 1997 and Steve Jobs return to the helm of Apple

Back in 1997 Apple was burning through its cash and was expected to become bankrupt in months. The imperative was survival – increasing the cash pile and cutting costs to buy time to focus on product renewal. What did Steve Jobs do? The very first thing, the most thing, he did was to persuade Microsoft, the arch enemy, to invest in Apple. By doing so he was able get his hands on $150 million (in return for non-voting shares). This dismayed the Apple faithful, left them stunned and led to heckling and booing. Something that Jobs had not experienced before. Nonetheless it was a masterstroke as it bought him time to:

  • Cut the number of products from 15 to 4;
  • Streamline distribution by selling through an exclusive national dealer as opposed to many retailers;
  • Focus marketing on a single message “Think Different”;
  • Terminate licensing deals that enabled other manufacturers to undercut Apple with Mac clones.

Result: operating expenses were cut nearly in half. Within months, Apple was back in the black and could focus on developing and bringing to market ‘killer products’ worthy of the Apple brand as personified by Jobs.

It occurs to me that Steve Jobs was more than creative or a showman (like Richard Branson). He was a master strategist he focussed relentlessly on the essence. How different to so many others who call themselves strategist and claim to put forth strategies. What do you say?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


  1. Maz, this is a great series of posts.

    “Strategy” is one of those words that is used to make almost anything seem more important than it actually is.

    Call CRM a strategy, for example, and it makes everyone feel like something important is happening. Sometimes it is, but more often than not, software is getting installed to get some tactical benefits. “Dog’s dinner” indeed.

    I think most of the things talked about as “strategies” are concepts (customer-centricity), to do lists, or projects. The aren’t long-term plans to accomplish a key (or a few) important business objectives.

    I’ve yet to talk to a senior business leader, much less a sales or marketing manager, who when I asked about their “strategy” for success said anything about CRM.

    With the technifying of CEM, the same thing may happen. Now some 90% of executives say (per Forrester) that the customer experience is a key strategy for differentiation. Yet few have any realistic plan for accomplishing this. Fixing customer service is not going to be enough. So I suppose CEM fits in the “blue sky” category.

    To me, a strategy is a plan — which means you have to write it down. Maybe we-who-criticize should share some examples of what a good strategy statement looks like?

    Until then, I’d like to share a video from a Saturday Night Live sketch many years ago, where Will Ferrell playing former US president George W. Bush, explains why he should be elected.

  2. Hello Bob

    Many thanks for sharing your view and posting the link: loved it, says it all!

    Some 10+ years ago when the customer orientation and 1to1 marketing wave hit the UK shores Centrica (big utility which operates British Gas) developed a growth strategy. It choose to create growth and value by focussing on cross selling services to its customer base who were mainly gas customers. So it got into buying a breakdown service. And into financial services by providing the Goldfish credit card etc. And home maintenance services around the utilities that go into the home like boiler breakdown cover. It did on the basis that British Gas had a sound/reliable brand reputation – these are the guys you call out when there is a gas leak and they save lives.

    This worked well. Until new management came years later and came up with a new strategy: focussing in on the core, supply of utilities and related services. So the major national breakdown service (i think it as the AA) was sold to highest bidder. So was the Goldfish credit card operation etc.

    Notice, strategy had major implications. The first team spent a fortune buying companies and/or developing new operations, new brand, joint ventures etc. These commitments were hard to get out of, the penalty of not getting this right running into hundreds of millions along with brand damage. Also this direction, this course of action, shaped the future of the organisation and the people in it. And when the new team came in and changed course, the same was at stake.

    Do where I stand, I view strategising as the intelligent/creative search for courses of action that are most likely to create/shape the future that I wish to bring about. Then I pick one, label it strategy. Now I have the one course of action that I am committing myself to. Great, now i have to act on the world. And if that acting involves buying a £1bn company then I need a plan for e.g raising that money……

    Where are the traps? The future is uncertain, unpredictable. So I can come up with a great strategy and by the time I am implementing it one or more of the assumptions (about world) turns false. Big problem. Or in strategising I dont do my homework because I am blinded by ideology/existing commitments and so I choose a course that has built in pain. Finally, I simply may not be able to implement the strategy: translate it into a joined p plan of action; people that ia m counting on fail to do their part…….

    I hope that provides some light into my thinking / orientation around strategy.



Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here