The 7 Myths of Strategy

Learn about the 7 strategy myths and tips to overcome them.


Strategy is often seen as a thinking exercise—a set of decisions and plans made by a small group. But strategy is brought to life by the people in every part of an organization every day. And engaging the people involved in creating and activating strategy is missing from most strategy approaches.

Here are 7 strategy myths and tips to overcome them shared by Jennifer Riel, IDEO Partner and Global Director of Strategy and an instructor of IDEO U’s newest course, Activating Strategy. Listen to the full episode on the Creative Confidence Podcast to hear Jennifer talk about how to reframe your thinking to go beyond the common strategy myths, why human centricity is critical, and how to make your strategy more actionable no matter what framework or process you use.


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Myth #1: The right way to do strategy is with a very small group of people.

“We need to design our strategy process with the people who are going to need to take action in mind, so that we’re bringing them along.” — Jennifer Riel 

While there should be a group of people who have accountability and capability around a strategy, that's different from having three people create the strategy alone and then telling the rest of the company to execute on it.

Many organizations choose to only involve a small group because it feels more manageable, and there’s a belief that with fewer people strategy can move more quickly. However, Jennifer says this assumes the strategy process ends when leaders share it with others to implement. But if you consider the time from the beginning of strategy creation to effective action on that strategy, having a more integrated and human-centered approach that considers the people who are executing on the strategy and invites other stakeholders in at the right moments leads to a much shorter time horizon overall.


Myth #2: Only leaders are responsible for creating strategy, and others are responsible for executing.

“Every one of us needs the ability to design our choices and take action on them.” — Jennifer Riel

Although we tend to think of strategy as happening with creation at the top and then execution at the bottom, Jennifer argues that everyone needs to do both. We all need the ability to design our choices and to take action on them, because every person in an organization makes decisions on how to allocate their time every single day, no matter their role or domain of control.


Myth #3: The creation of strategy is separate from the activation of it.

“It’s always better to think of strategy and activation together as a journey you need to design as you go along.” — Jennifer Riel

Oftentimes organizations approach strategy creation and activation separately, even hiring outside firms to create the strategy and expecting team members to translate and bring it to life internally. When this happens, there’s frequently the frustration of, “Where did this come from and what should I do with it?”


A chart showing the results of a poll answering the question, “How confident are you in your organization’s ability to implement strategy?” with 46% responding “somewhat confident,” 23% responding “neutral,” 9% responding “very confident,” 1% responding “extremely confident,” and 9% responding “not at all.”

A poll from the IDEO U community on their confidence in strategy activation. 

Jennifer suggests looking at strategy creation and activation in an interconnected way, thinking about activation from the beginning and continuing to embed strategy even in the activation phase. When people understand the choices that are being made and their own role in bringing the strategy to life, they’ll be more engaged and ready to take action, and it’ll ultimately make the strategy better.

Learn how to bring strategy to life through your everyday choices in our course Activating Strategy.


Myth #4: Strategy is a thinking task.

“Human centricity is about the acknowledgement that strategy is just a piece of paper without the human beings that bring it to life.” — Jennifer Riel

When we see strategy as a purely intellectual or cognitive task, we tend to leave big gaps, make big assumptions, and leave a lot of things implicit. If we’re able to bring in tangibility and see strategy as doing, whether that's building prototypes or testing to learn, we lean into a more robust way of tackling the problem. Strategy is both a thinking and a doing task when done well.

To go beyond thinking in the strategy process, find ways to translate the words of your strategy into something people can physically and emotionally experience. Jennifer gives the example of a project she did with a US consumer bank. When her team shared potential strategies around the future of the retail banking experience, the bank wasn’t excited by it. Jennifer’s team decided to try creating engaging visualized stories of how customers would experience the bank, and it made the strategy real in a way that their words didn't.


Myth #5: You need 100% certainty before executing strategy.

“If you embrace the idea you can be more or less confident but never certain, then think of the entire process of activating strategy as a journey toward confidence.” — Jennifer Riel

Jennifer says that in a complex world, it’s not possible to be totally certain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take action. Design is about starting with a rough idea and getting to an evolving product in the market, and you gradually gain more certainty as you move along. You take your initial strategy and build it, get feedback, then build it again slightly better. Instead of certainty, it’s about having the confidence to take the next step.


Myth #6: There’s only one right framework or approach for strategy work.

“Whatever framework you use, the intent should be articulating clear choices in a way that people could do something tomorrow.” — Jennifer Riel

There’s no one right way to do strategy—every organization has a different approach. A framework is just a way to structure your thinking, and whatever framework feels powerful and useful to you in your context can work great. The purpose of frameworks is to communicate the choices that are being made with clarity and specificity.

Jennifer has seen many strategy frameworks, ranging from visualizing a company as a house to OGSM (objectives, goals, strategies, measures). Her least favorite approach is just taking the last strategy and tweaking it. It’s more effective to explore different possibilities, do stress tests, and build and prototype your strategy in the real world. Jennifer personally uses the Playing to Win frameworks in her course Designing Strategy, which she finds intuitive and easy to use in different contexts.


Myth #7: Strategy is a once-a-year task.

“It becomes a part of the work that you do every day.” — Jennifer Riel

Many organizations do strategy every one to five years. Jennifer says that while it’s useful to have moments on the calendar where you put in intensive effort, if strategy is the most important set of things you’re doing to position yourself to win, it doesn’t serve you well to only talk about it once a year or every few years. Instead of waiting until the end of the year to change a strategy that isn’t playing out as you expected, you can have regular strategy discussions on what's working and not working. It’s beneficial to revisit your strategy, and thoughtfully assess what needs to change in between the dedicated moments for strategic planning once a year.


More Articles on Strategy

Want more resources on designing and activating strategy in your organization? Check out these articles from the IDEO U blog:


About The Speaker

Jennifer Riel
Partner & Global Director of Strategy, IDEO

Jennifer has led strategy processes at large public and private sector organizations around the world. She also serves as a strategy and innovation advisor to senior leaders at several Fortune 100 companies. She is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, where she teaches strategy, innovation, and integrative thinking. She co-authored Creating Great Choices with Roger L. Martin. She has published articles in Harvard Business Review, the Globe and Mail, Businessweek, and Strategy Magazine. Jennifer received her MBA from the Rotman School of Management. Her undergraduate degree is in English Literature and History, from Queen’s University.


If you want to learn more about how to activate your own strategy, check out our course Activating Strategy, taught by Jennifer Riel.

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