Why you should write a strategy document — even if it’s just for yourself

Writing a strategy document is the best way to make sure you, your business, or your organization move forward in a thoughtful way. It’s a discipline you should follow.

What is a strategy document?

“What is strategy?” is a tricky question, addressed by everyone from Michael Porter to every boss on the planet. But there’s no need to get into that level of detail when addressing a strategy document. A strategy document is just a carefully considered plan for the future, in line with what I’ve written before about the word “strategic.”

You write a strategy document when you have decisions to make. Those might be decisions about your company. But they might also be decisions about your own personal future. Or they could be decisions about your plan to succeed as a sole proprietor. If there are ongoing decisions, there’s room to write a strategy document.

The strategy document should include the following parts:

  • Executive summary. A one- or two-paragraph summary of the document. You can draft this first, but make sure you rewrite it when the document is complete.
  • Key questions. What kinds of decisions is this document intended to address? For a company, the questions might be, “Do we focus on products or services?” or “What types of customers do we serve?” For an individual planning their career, the questions might include, “Will I focus on management or getting better technically?” or “How will I know when it’s time to look for a new position?” And for a freelancer, important questions might be “How will I market my business?” and “What sorts of clients will make me most successful?”
  • Data. You can’t make decisions without data. So the next section in your strategy document should include facts. These include statistics from dependable sources, but could also include case studies out in the world or your own experiences. This is also where you include opinions from people you trust, such as former colleagues and mentors.
  • Analysis. What reasoning can you apply to the data? Based on everything you know and observe, what’s the best way to make the decisions you’re concerned with?
  • Conclusions and recommendations. What will you do (or recommend that the company do) based on what you figured out? How will you apply the analysis in future decision-making situations.
  • How will you monitor changing conditions? Things change. You might get a new opportunity or lose your job. You might have a big client come on board, or another one quit. You might get a new degree. The economy might surge ahead or slow down, either overall or in your particular niche. How will you review those changing conditions, and in what situations might they change your strategy?
  • What’s next? If things work out as you expect, what are the consequences for your company, your business, or yourself? How will things look different in the future? What are the next set of questions and decisions on the horizon?

How and why to write a strategy document

Why write a strategy document? To be more disciplined about yourself and your decisions. Without a strategy document, you’re acting “by the seat of your pants.” You make decisions without considering the full context of those decisions. If you seem to keep shifting direction, that’s what happens when you have no strategy.

I recommend that you write strategy documents with an audience in mind. If your strategy document is corporate, the audience is management. If it is for you personally, you might consider writing it with an imagined audience of a past mentor you had. (If you’re still connected, show it to them.) If it is for your freelance business, imagine the document being reviewed by a potential investor.

The exercise of considering the questions, compiling the data, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions is valuable in itself. You will be smarter if you do those things well enough to write them up. The document becomes central in a planning exercise that helps you exercise disciplined thinking.

Once the document is done, go back to it from time to time. You might want to post the executive summary on your wall where you can see it and think about it regularly.

Finally, recognize that strategy documents are perishable. You should revisit and revise your strategy document at least once every 18 months. That keeps it useful and up to date. A stale strategy document leads to bad decisions. (For example, can you imagine a strategy document from pre-COVID days being as useful now as when you wrote it two years ago?)

It’s work to write a strategy document. But the work is thinking you should be doing anyway. If you fail to do that work, don’t be surprised if your company, your work, or your career seem to be going in random directions that weren’t what you anticipated.

One response to “Why you should write a strategy document — even if it’s just for yourself

  1. Yes Yes Yes but the real trick is the EXECUTION. A great strategy document that isn’t (or can’t be) executed is just a colourful powerpoint. As the erudite Richard Rumelt writes in “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” most strategy documents are nothing more than a wish list.

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