Strategic management: a sports analogy


Strategic Management

Strategic Management

Imagine you are the head coach of a professional football team.  You have just sent your captains onto the field to observe the coin toss for the Superbowl.  Furthermore, imagine that you and the team had been enjoying talking to reporters, relaxing around the pool and late nights. After all, you played well all year – certainly the team has demonstrated that it knows how to win. You have had such a good time that you suddenly realize that you are not sure who your opponent is. They have routed three other teams in the playoffs by a combined score of 137 to 6. Because you have been so busy with “other things”, you forgot to decide what offensive scheme will work best. Most importantly, you have not figured out what you will do to stop the best rushing team in the league.

Trailing 69 to 3 in the third quarter, you realize that you really prepared the team well for this slaughter. By putting off that coaching staff meeting at the beginning of the week, the team set new Superbowl records. Points scored in a quarter (none of them yours), penalty yards incurred and largest margin of victory are undesirable records. This is not the way it was supposed to be when you earned your shot at sports greatness.  By not planning at all, you effectively planned for failure!  Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Strategic Management: for the long-term success of the company

Like the coaching staff in the above scenario, senior management is responsible for the long-term success of the company. Their top priority is to establish Vision, Structure and Culture.  This is accomplished by strategic management, the first step of which is planning.  If the management team does not shoulder this burden, if the planning process is not structured, then it occurs randomly.  Strategy is then determined by one individual’s vision or is the result of the daily unstructured interactions of management. This “strategy-through-meetings-in-the-hallway” approach often works for simpler, smaller businesses for a limited amount of time. Once the enterprise grows, or its competition stiffens, managers realize that they can not make do with unstructured planning.

If not formalized, the plan is less likely to be well thought out and doesn’t generate buy-in. Organized strategic planning provides for the information required, a structured analysis of information, thoughtful decision-making and realistic implementation planning.

Importance of Strategy vs. Tactics

It is important that we briefly discuss the difference between strategic and tactical planning. Consider participating in a sailing regatta. One can prepare one’s vessel and team to be absolutely the best in the race. The skipper can know every sail configuration and every wind-reading technique for making the boat knife through the water at the greatest speed. The crew can be ready to execute every command at a moment’s notice. The captain and crew must have know the destination and the best course and direction to get there.

Without strategic vision of the race, their strategy will be watching their competition, reacting to competitive heading changes and hoping they win the race. Making great speed (tactical execution) can be meaningless if the vessel is not moving in the right direction (strategic direction).

Similarly, running a business without a course and direction in mind can yield equally unremarkable results.

The longest journey begins with but a single step

If the business’ leaders do not schedule the meetings and get the process started, then it will certainly never be completed.

The first thing that must be done is to examine the annual business cycle and schedule the time to plan. For some, it is best to conduct strategic planning immediately preceding their annual budgeting process. This affords them long-term perspective and helps make certain that the strategic objectives will receive proper funding.

“Running a business without a destination in mind…can yield equally unremarkable results.”

For others, some urgent situation may compel them to start planning immediately.

Once you have determined when to plan, then find the required meeting time on your managers’ schedules and get going! Do not just keep hoping for a lull in everyone’s schedule. Choose the strategic planning team, find the dates that work and put those dates on everyone’s calendar.

Make a firm commitment to both the initiation and completion of the strategic planning process. Keep the team focused on the destination: a clear enunciation of the vision for the next few years. Communicate the planning process, the expected deliverables and an understanding of each team member’s role and responsibility.

If it is your team’s first time through strategic planning, make sure that you introduce the process properly

Give the team an overview of how the process will be conducted. Make it clear to all team members that this is not just an intellectual exercise. Your intentions at the onset of the planning process are to follow-through with the decisions made by the team. If you are the company leader, then your participation in the process is critical. The decisions are the product of consensus but are not necessarily the result of a pure democracy.

Perform the planning

Once you have the commitment of the CEO and the management team and meeting times are set, perform the planning. Make sure that the process you have chosen is sound.  Schedule your meetings offsite and make sure that you manage the agenda for each session to stay on schedule. Completing and acting upon a less than perfect plan is preferred over striving for perfection and never finishing.

Therefore, do not expect perfection the first time through. The perfect plan does not exist. DO expect the following:

  1. Better understanding of your business
  2. Clear statement of your desired long term vision
  3. Specific steps that you believe will take you there
  4. Planning of the resources needed to make the journey

Note:  This post is the second in a series of posts from Tom Ambler’s article Strategic Management: 3 Steps to the Cycle of Success originally posted in Compass Points.  The first post introduced the series.  Read it here.  The next post in this series will discuss the second step in more detail.  For a more complete understanding of strategic management, attend the Simplified Strategic Planning Seminar.

Author, Tom Ambler

Author, Tom Ambler

© Copyright 2018 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.

Tom Ambler is a Senior Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at

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