Spot the imposter: how to discern a legit strategy from a poser

Article Chris Erickson 4m read

Companies use the word strategy a lot. Too much, in fact. In some businesses, it has become a placeholder for almost every idea they develop—a synonym for simple concepts and project briefs.

Don’t get us wrong—strategies are critical. But tossing the word around like a Frisbee cheapens the meaning and gives you a false sense of purpose and direction. 

As we define it, strategy is “an intentional movement toward a shared, envisioned objective.” A strategy is clearly articulated, broadly understood, and driven by a sense of purpose. Anything short of that is a poser—a flimsy stand-in for an authentic, actionable plan that moves your company in the right direction. 

It’s important to note that counterfeit strategies often run in packs. And, the more you see, the deeper the issues. One flag might indicate a poor strategy. Multiple flags point to a foundational misalignment.

Telltale signs of bogus strategies.

To help you discern a strategy from a poser, we’ve broken down the red flags that most commonly indicate a phony. Ask yourself whether a given strategy passes these basic sniff tests. Chances are it’s not real if:

  1. It’s overly broad and lacks specificity.

    1. A non-strategy is frequently vague and left open to interpretation. It is often the result of groupthink, strategy by committee, or toxic compromise. You’ve likely run into them a hundred times. They use a lot of words but communicate very little.

    2. These can also be as plain as a list of deliverables, a collection of thoughts, or a brief masquerading as strategy. They often outline what needs to be accomplished while sidestepping the “why” or specific strategic outcomes.

  2. It lacks buy-in.

    1. If your team, leadership, or CEO aren’t aligned on your strategy , you don’t have one. If there are ongoing debates or back-channel conversations about modifying it, it’s a poser. Unless your team is unified and rallying around, you only have an idea.

    2. This lack of organizational backing often manifests in an environment where people’s actions don’t align with the company’s stated strategy.

    3. They simply don’t believe it. In fact, it’s possible that folks plainly acknowledge that it’s B.S. And that’s different from a bonafide, widely accepted, and actively supported strategy.

  3. It lacks purpose.

    1. Every strategy needs a reason for being. If it doesn’t include explicit, measurable goals or objectives, it’s not a strategy. 

    2. Strategies should support—or define—your company’s larger ambitions, objectives, and vision. They should have a strong perspective. It’s too vague and weak to be helpful if yours doesn’t have a backbone.

    3. We often see this when strategies are reduced to hyped-up jumbles of platitudes and feel-good phrases that don’t have purpose or precision.

  4. It’s disregarded.

    1. Does your team chase ideas and inspiration? Do personal opinions or trends guide your decision-making? Are your so-called strategies developed but then dismissed?

    2. If you have a strategy but decisions don’t ladder back to it, it’s a strategy in name only. Real strategies are tangible enough to guide daily decisions. They are referenced continuously, driving behaviors, direction, and feedback.

  5. It is universal or cliche.

    1. It’s surprising how often baseline expectations masquerade as strategy. Of course, you should put the customer first, act with integrity, embrace diversity, care about the environment, etc. But these things are table stakes. Keep doing them, but don’t call them your strategy. 

    2. If this is the stuff you’re propping up as a strategy—nope. Just nope.

  6. It’s reused, repurposed, or regurgitated.

    1. Strategies deliver results when they are original, creative, compelling, and tailored for a specific purpose. Like the previous point, boilerplate, templated, tweaked, or rewritten content or concepts don’t cut it.

    2. You can’t rip off another hot brand or dope campaign. You can’t whip up a quick word cloud and pass it off as your strategy. If you are referencing that big thing that just happened by that leading brand, then you can rest assured everybody else is doing the same thing. It’s a recipe for following rather than leading.

  7. It’s a formality that gets passed off.

    1. This falls into the box-checking category. Someone on your team created something purely out of obligation. It was a to-do, and now it’s a to-done. But that doesn’t make it good.

    2. Here is how we often hear these faux strategies presented to us. Someone on the client side will kick off an engagement and tell us, “I’m sure you’ve seen this kind of thing before. Feel free to reference it if you want to. We’re relying on you folks to do your magic.” And they’re certainly right: we have seen pretend strategies before.

    3. When a strategy is worth its salt—when it’s critical and bought into—then people don’t treat it like a second-class initiative. Strategies aren’t paint-by-number prefaces to project briefs. 

  8. It’s rushed or lacks critical thinking.

    1. Too little time or careful thought will undoubtedly lead to a fraudulent strategy. That’s hard, especially when everything needed to be done yesterday. But the wrong ideas, developed quickly, won’t get you where you need to go. 

    2. If your strategy was cranked out, under pressure, in a vacuum, then it isn’t trustworthy. Scrutiny, discernment, and debate are critical parts of effective, pressure-tested strategies, and they take time. 

Leading indicators that a strategy is sound, authentic, and effective.

Don’t worry; we aren’t leaving you without some methods to spot actual strategies. The more of these boxes your strategy ticks, the stronger it is. Here are some signs a strategy is on the right track:

  • If it is a project-, product- or initiative-level strategy, it should align with your company’s foundational, directional strategy.

  • It’s a natural extension of who you are and what you do.

  • It’s specific and measurable. It outlines the intended outcomes in clear terms that are measurable.

  • It’s held in high regard. Your team believes it is essential, and they ensure it is well communicated and followed.

  • It’s ever-present. You reference it on an ongoing basis. Feedback and direction align with it, and it continuously acts as your North star.

  • It’s cohesive, makes sense, focused, and logical. 

  • Everybody agrees on it and actively supports it.

If everything is a strategy, then nothing is.

Effective strategies have less impact when pretenders detract from them. And remember, imposters are good at posing. That’s what makes them so pernicious. 

To learn more about how Parliament helps brands develop foundational strategies, let’s chat .