Words Get In The Way

Your strategy can’t take root if people don’t understand it. But all too often the words we use in strategy development are fuzzy and unclear. Is it possible to fight your way through this fog and find clarity? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

Roger Martin (of Playing to Win fame) recently posed a question that every marketing leader should be asking themselves: “Are you building a strategy Tower of Babel”?

For the uninitiated, the Tower of Babel is a biblical origin myth meant to explain why the world’s peoples speak different languages. The gist of the story: language barriers can really hold humanity back.

This is, clearly, an age-old problem. But it seems to be particularly acute in modern strategy development.

It starts with the very word itself. The term “strategy’ is both vital and widely misused.

The term is often confused with its close cousin, “tactics“.

Marketers—especially marketing bloggers—seem to have a particularly hard time with this distinction.

Why? We have a theory. We marketers tend to love language. But we also like taking liberties with it. For example, changing the names of things to make them seem more exciting.

The confusion here is bigger than marketing, though. And it goes well beyond the distinction between strategies and tactics.

For most of us, the difference between a mission, vision and purpose is probably a bit fuzzy.

Same goes for the distinction between a market and an audience.

Goals are also commonly confused with strategies.

And don’t even get us started on goals vs. objectives.

All of this is compounded by competing models of strategy development. Each of these models—including AlignedEOSBlue Ocean and Martin’s own Playing to Win—comes with its own specific set of terms.

Which is fine until a different team or department opts for a different model.

So what can you, as a marketing leader, do to minimize the Babel problem?

It starts with a simple recognition of the central role that words play in strategy development.

Mark Pollard puts it this way: “Here’s how to get good at strategy: words. Start with words, continue with words, and finish with words. You have one job – get good at words.”

Once this idea has taken root, we like Roger Martin’s recommendation: define and enforce “a common, singular language for strategy” in your organization.

It’s not about getting the words “right”. If you want to adopt an existing framework off the shelf, go for it. If you want to make up entirely new set of terms, that’s fine too.

As long as everyone knows what all of the terms mean—and don’t mean—you should be able to avoid building your own Tower of Babel.

Issue #137
Feb 27, 2022

Further Reading