The difference between planning and strategy

The long road or the short street? Strategic advisor Annalisa Roy on how not to get nudged off track, in work and life

Why, in life, it’s important to know where you want to go, but not always how you will get there

Many moons ago I was invited to an APG event. The key speaker was the historian Lawrence Freedman whose book: Strategy: A History had just been published. Freedman talked about strategy in a political and socioeconomic sense, focusing a part of his phenomenal speech on war strategy. 

What has stayed with me over the years was his clarification between planning and strategy, in his speech he said: ‘a plan wins you a battle, but a strategy wins you the war.’ 

Having spent my career in an industry that uses planning and strategy interchangeably I was really struck by this fundamental difference, and I wasn’t the only one. From that day on the planning department at AMV was renamed the strategy department, and we all changed our job titles accordingly. 

But advertising anecdotes aside, what I find incredibly accurate about the difference between a plan and a strategy is their effects on the outcome. Strategy tends to serve big long-term objectives whereas planning is best suited to reach smaller shorter term goals. 

And that applies to marketing strategy as much as it does to life

With the difference being that in life most goals tend to be big and mostly long-term, so approaching them with a short-term plan isn’t the most effective way of reaching them. 

For example, I was recently mentoring a very talented strategist. This person is ambitious and has a clear idea of where they want to get to in their career, they have thought about it in the finest detail. However, they were suddenly finding themselves pushed off course by some happenings in the agency at which they were working, things outside of their control. This caused them a great deal of emotional upset, as well as leaving them very confused as to what to do next. 

I used this analogy to try and help them: imagine you are physically travelling towards your destination, this could be any goal you might have. You have two options to get there: you can travel on a long wide road, or on a short and narrow street. 

If you travel on the long road you might not see your destination in fine detail, but you know broadly that you’re going in the right direction. So even when things happen that are outside your control — which inevitably do, they might only push you a little to the left or to the right but you are still well within your road and moving forward towards your destination. The journey might be a little more wiggly than you expected but the trajectory is still correct. 

If you travel on the short narrow street, you can see your destination and can almost touch it, but any unforeseen circumstance will push you right off the street leaving you completely off-piste and utterly confused as to how (or even if) you’ll be able reach your destination at all.

The moral of the story is…

… having a broad long-term strategy gives a higher degree of success in reaching big life goals compared to having a narrow short-term plan. 

So for those of us who thrive on setting life goals I suggest to continue to do so, but to think of a broader strategy on how to achieve them. Forget the detailed plan, because when we spend too much time caught up in the details of the ‘how’ we might achieve these goals, it’s when life happens to pass you by seemingly doing its own thing. 

A long-term strategy allows for life to happen with its many unforeseen twists and turns, it allows for them to nudge you in different directions, but never to push you completely off track. 

Featured image: Illiya Vjestica / Unsplash

Annalisa Roy, Strategic advisor

Annalisa was previously Joint Head of Strategy at Grey London. She is now an independent strategic advisor to brands, widely known for her expertise in strategic innovation and her innate need to challenge the status quo. Having started her career as a digital media specialist working for OMD and Verizon Media, she then moved on to working with 4 of the most respected advertising agencies in London: AMVBBDO, Publicis, BBH and most recently Grey as board strategist, head of content and social strategy and global strategy lead.

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