Tuesday June 28th 2016

“I Don’t Know Quite How to Say This”: The Language of Strategy


Words matter. More specifically, the meaning that we attach to words matter.

The psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in a seminal work in the area of cognitive science, first introduced the idea that language – the words we use to communicate – shapes the form and scope of our internal thoughts. While there have been variations on this theme over the years, there is general agreement that language and thought are inseparable in guiding our understanding of ourselves and of our world.

The problem, as we know too well, is that the meaning of the words we use rests in the separate minds of the speaker and the listener. Simply, words that we all know and use regularly may not mean the same thing to each of us. We need look no further than our current political discourse for illustration. If I refer to you as a liberal or a conservative, am I affirming you, deriding you, or merely describing you? It depends, of course, on what those terms mean to me and on what I believe they mean to you.

Less inflammatory than the language of politics, though no less confusing, is the language of strategy. What I have found through my work with nonprofits is that we rarely mean the same thing when we use the word strategy. For some, it denotes a means to an end, as in the development of specific “strategies” to achieve an organizational goal. Others use the word strategy to denote the desired end itself, as in achievement of a longer-term “strategic position”. The term strategy is just as likely to conjure up the image of a roadmap as it is the image of a compass.

To make matters worse, we tend to surround the word strategy with similarly cryptic concepts, like mission, vision, and impact. The result is a conflation of ideas that often are expressed through convoluted statements of purpose and overly-detailed plans that seem to not have an end in mind.

To bring some level of clarity to this chaos of ambiguity, I employ a vocabulary that I have found useful in helping nonprofits come to common agreement on the meaning of the important words. It goes like this:

The vision is a brief description of the conditions you desire for the people you serve. An alternative means of describing the vision is to ask yourself what problem your organization is trying to solve, and for whom. Either way, the vision is externally-focused and forces the organization to speak with clarity and precision about who it is they serve and what they want to see happen to or for them.

The mission is a broad statement of how your organization will contribute to the creation of those conditions. Implied in the relationship of vision to mission is the acknowledgement that your guiding vision is not yours alone. The mission, then, provides the context for strategy by narrowing the focus to the role you wish to play in moving toward the vision.

The strategy conveys how your organization believes it can achieve the greatest mission impact in the most sustainable manner. To return to the words of Michael Porter, strategy is mostly about deciding what you will not do, thereby focusing attention and resources on those activities with the greatest mission value.

The mission impact describes the demonstrable changes that will result from the enactment of the strategy. Said another way, the impact statement operationalizes the mission by highlighting specific changes that occur at the client or participant level.

To illustrate, consider the case of an organization that provides services to individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Our vision is that every individual is able to reach his or her potential at home, at work, and in the community.

Our mission is to remove the barriers that prevent individuals with intellectual disabilities from pursuing a life of fulfillment, purpose, and meaning.

Our strategy is multi-pronged and includes: a) direct services to consumers and their families; b) consumer and family advocacy; and c) partnerships with other community stakeholders.

Our mission impact is measured the ability of our consumers to meet their personal goals, which may include: a) independent living; b) community employment; c) peer group connections; and, d) avocational expression.

Language as a human invention is in constant flux. New words come and go, and others change in connotation over time. For now, for this purpose, let’s agree on the meaning and significance of these four terms so that we can at least speak the same language as we move toward our common goal of a better world.

Know what I mean?