Playing To Win

The Five Deadliest Strategy Myths

Forewarned is Forearmed

Roger Martin
8 min readJul 8, 2024

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Source: Roger L. Martin, 2024

A reader, Deependra, asked me whether I would write on piece on “myths and misconceptions in strategy.” My first reaction was that I have written many pieces in that general territory. But then I realized that I hadn’t addressed the subject directly and comprehensively. So, I decided to write a Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece on The Five Deadliest Strategy Myths: Forewarned is Forearmed. All previous PTW/PI can be found here.

The List of Deadliest Strategy Myths

I reflected on the question long and hard and have concluded that five strategy myths are the deadliest. These myths diminish the effectiveness and value of strategy and damage the companies that fall prey to them.

I started out trying to order them from most to least damaging, but in the end, it is hard to make a case that one is definitively deadlier than the next. I would encourage you to take them collectively as the five myths you should reject and should not let control your life or that of your company.

I have included more than the usual number of links to previous Medium articles and Harvard Business Review (HBR) articles because I have written about all five myths previously.

1) A List of Initiatives is a Strategy

This is a near universal myth — right up there with historical greats like ‘the earth is flat,’ ‘the stars/planets rotate around the earth,’ ‘lead pipes are great for carrying water,’ ‘cigarettes don’t cause cancer,’ and ‘journalists report objectively.’

Because of this myth, a list of initiatives is the dominant form of ‘strategy’ found on the planet. No other manifestation of ‘strategy’ comes close in usage. So, empirically, a list of initiatives is strategy.

But in truth, it is not. A list of initiatives is the output of a process called planning, which I explain in my famous viral video, A Plan is Not a Strategy. The fact that it has gotten so many views (nearly 4.3 million) leads me to believe that I have at least gotten some people thinking about the topic.

The fatal shortcomining with a list of initiatives is that it is focused on the things you control and not on the one terribly important thing that you can’t: customers. That is the tricky thing, the hard thing. Making up a list of non-stupid things that are fully in your control is dead easy. Deciding to invest in a set of activities that compels customers to act as you wish — that is hard, and exceedingly valuable.

In the world of ‘strategy,’ people make the easy versus hard choice quickly and seamlessly — because they believe the myth that they are ‘doing strategy.’ And that is what is making strategy the lost art.

2) You can Prove that your Strategy is Correct

In strategy, there is a dominant (and highly bureaucratic) belief that if you are rigorous enough with your analysis, you can prove (in advance) that your strategy is ‘correct.’ That leads to not doing anything new/different unless you can prove it is ‘correct’ and are certain it will work.

Since nobody can ever — even in the best circumstances — prove anything about the future involving humans interacting in markets, companies will steer away from doing anything that deviates from the status quo. That is because the status quo has an implicit exemption — since we aren’t dead, our strategy must be more correct than any alternative about which we have no proof is correct. The logic is obviously stupid on its face, but it is the dominant logic powered by the associated myth.

This myth also inspires other related myths, such as the myth that it is useful to spend time and effort on forecasting revenues. Forecasting the future behavior of something over which you have zero control — i.e., with whom customers spend their money — is a silly waste of time. It isn’t terribly damaging. It is just like giving a crying child a pacifier. It makes the child feel better without providing anything of true value — like affection or food. At least it doesn’t damage the child (though pediatricians may say otherwise).

3) Analytically Strong People are Better Strategists

Readers may be surprised that this is on the list at all — or even a bad thing. Yup, it is. It puts the wrong people in charge of strategy.

The view that strategists are analytical wizards — and it is an origin story thing. It mirrors author Tom Wolfe’s observation in The Right Stuff, his book about the early days of the US space program. The star character of the book (and subsequent movie) was Chuck Yaeger, considered by most in the field to be the greatest test pilot who ever lived. Famously, he was the pilot who broke the sound barrier, but didn’t want to become an astronaut because that would force himself to become ‘Spam in a can.’ Since he was the alpha pilot, every pilot wanted to be like him and that is why pilots today, a half-century after Yaeger’s retirement, still mimic his folksy, all-shucks drawl when they talk to passengers on the intercom.

In strategy, the first true strategist was Boston Consulting Group (BCG) founder Bruce Henderson, and he built his firm with analytical wunderkind, originally mainly Baker Scholars from Harvard Business School. They graphed experience curves and analyzed growth rates and market share to place businesses on growth-share matrices. So as it was with Yaeger, everyone wanted to be like Henderson and his early acolytes. And because all the early strategists were analytically obsessed, the assumption became that analytical people would be better strategists. I know this because I was heavily involved in Monitor Company recruiting in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. Showing analytical prowess and orientation was the only successful route through our process for any candidate.

Despite the nearly universal assumption that a better analyst would be a better strategist, there has never been any demonstration that there is validity to this view. Analysts hire analysts in a self-referential orgy.

The problem is that the greatest strategists in business history — whether Steve Jobs or Fred Smith — imagine a future that does not now exist and therefore can’t be analyzed — and go on to create it. Rather than depend on analysis they refuse to be constrained by it. The best strategists realize that their analytical prowess is a shortcoming to be overcome. As my friend AG Lafley always says: ‘analysis can never be more than an aide to my judgment.’

The key to being a great strategist is imagination — not analysis. This gets back to the advice from Aristotle: imagine possibilities and choose the one for which the most compelling argument can be made.

4) Strategy is a Zero-Sum Game

Some commentators don’t like strategy because they see it as being about winners beating losers in a destructive zero-sum game. It seems to be aggressive, undignified and negative, with callous regarding the fate of the workers of the crushed competitor.

That is strategy at its worst, at its least effective. Military gurus from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz argue against this conception of competition.

Strategy should always seek to produce a positive sum game in which your company succeeds in a particular place (Where-to-Play) in a particular way (How-to-Win) that convinces others to succeed in different places in different ways. Will the competitive overlap be zero? Rarely. But a lower overlap will result in more customers being satisfied in more ways. More companies will prosper through serving their targeted customers better. Strategy should make the world a better place, not just rearrange who benefits.

The zero-sum approach is easy to fall into. Replicating competitors requires no imagination or creativity. That is why the myth of strategy as automatically being a zero-sum game is so damaging. It encourages managers to do the very easiest thing — and the one with the worst result for companies, customers, employees, and the communities in which they work.

5) Strategy is Formulated at the Top & then Executed Below

Perhaps the most nefarious myth of the five is that senior leadership formulates strategy and then everybody else executes. I have written about this repeatedly here, here, and here, for example.

It is definitively a myth because it is not true in any sense. Strategy involves making choices under uncertainty, competition, and constraints. For execution to be something else, it can’t be making choices under uncertainty, competition, and constraints — otherwise it should and would be called strategy. If something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck: it is a duck. What is called execution is, in fact, doing strategy at levels other than the very top of the company.

What is the problem with the myth and why do I find it so damaging? There are many reasons, but I will focus on two of the deadliest.

First is that it lets crappy strategy — analytical exercises that generate lists of initiatives — off the hook by blaming the crappiness on execution: ‘It was a great strategy that was poorly executed.’ I have been doing strategy as my profession for 43 years and have never once seen the creature ‘a great strategy that was poorly executed.’ For me, it is tied for lifetime sightings with Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, Sasquatch, and Unicorn. I have seen many strategies the creators of which think are ‘great,’ but I think suck totally. It is a stupid myth but a powerful rationalization that discourages the development of better strategy.

Second it is deeply insulting to the rest of the organization. They are judged to be incapable of doing strategy because that is exclusively the province of top management. The only thing the rest of the organization can do is execution — whatever the hell that is. No wonder employee engagement across the world of business is so pathetic. The myth that guides their business life is false, offensive and disheartening.

Practitioner Insights

Those are the five deadliest strategy myths. The probability is 100% that you will be confronted with all five because they are so dominant. Moreover, all five will be presented to you as the truth, not an opinion, not an option: the truth. Not only will they be presented as the truth, but you will also be shamed into accepting the myths. If you don’t, you will be seen as a strategy denier.

That is why strategy is becoming the lost art. I would give the median strategy in the modern world of business something in the C- range. And that is the natural outcome of the myths, not some kind of inexplicable, rogue outcome that will be reversed in due course.

Reject the myths. See strategy as an integrated set of choices that compels desired customer action, a bet on the future, a creative act that generates opportunities for competitors to be great too and is only the first step in a companywide series of nested strategy choices. If you do, you will be better. You don’t have to be and shouldn’t want to be part of a C- discipline.

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Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.