What’s the difference between a strategy and a plan? A mission, an objective, and a goal? Or are these questions just exercises in semantics?

These are all words that we volley about with abandon in our working lives. Our business-speak is littered with strategies and goals and objectives and initiatives and on and on… and don’t get me started on values, beliefs, and principles, or systems versus frameworks.

80% of successful quality management is communication, and communication depends on a common language and words with agreed-upon definitions that serve specific purposes. If we want all levels of an organization to work together to make the organization’s vision a reality, then we need to use words that everyone in the organization can understand both in context and in terms of guiding what they should be doing next. Which means we should take time to define what these words mean for our organization.

Let me offer some suggestions.

I personally like Sam Bodley-Scott’s definition of “strategy”, a collection of choices that define the nature and direction of our enterprise. The concept of a collection is a good one. Taken as a collection, we should be able to discern an organization’s strategy by looking at how well aligned are the choices our employees make as they carry out their responsibilities. If we can’t discern the pattern in that collection, or worse, if we can see the pattern and it is leading our organization toward a different vision, then we can conclude that our organizational strategy is either not clearly understood or irrelevant.

I like to take the word “strategy” to be a collection of initiatives that get us closer to our vision. I like “initiative” because it’s an action word, and I use it in the context of “What actions do we need to take?”. It implies that I have described my vision clearly, I’ve compared it to where I am right now, I’ve identified what’s in the vision that’s not in my current picture, and I have now got some concrete initiatives to go get those things I need to complete my vision. “Initiative” and “action” are very similar. Let’s use the concept of collections again and suggest that an initiative, or Capital-A action, is a collection of small-a actions.

My actions, both Capital-A and small-a, are guided by my values (or principles, or beliefs – again, don’t get me started …). For instance, if my vision is me driving down the highway in a big truck (insert your choice of Peterbilt, Kenworth, Volvo, or other) with a sleeper on the back, criss-crossing the country doing long-haul deliveries, then an action would be to get a truck. My values would dictate that I won’t steal it or buy a dilapidated unit that is likely to be unsafe or break down easily. That just wouldn’t reflect who I am. My values are criteria against which I can choose my actions. My strategy, then, is a collection of initiatives that bring me closer to my vision and that are also consistent with my values.

We can see that it is easy to define our vision and to state our actions. It’s harder to state our organizational strategy because by definition; our strategy is a collection of our actions. Our strategy is defined in context, and, as we said before, it’s proven in the context of seeing if our actions are following a pattern, if our actions are filling in the blank parts of our vision or erasing the parts of our current picture we no longer need.

Can we use the word “mission” to help articulate our organizational strategy? What is a mission? And what is it, relative to an initiative or an objective? A common definition of a “mission statement” is what a company wants to do now, while a vision statement outlines what a company wants to be in the future. Mission Statements contain information the company wants employees, customers, suppliers, and stakeholders to know about it (check this link for more information). So, while our strategy is a collection of initiatives, our mission statement can serve the purpose of describing our strategy’s intention.

Now that we’ve got an operating definition for strategy, let’s see how the other words fit.

A plan? That’s a sequence of steps, small-a actions, to complete an initiative. If I want to get a truck, I’m going to have to do things, actions, in a certain order, including getting a Class A license, securing a loan, setting up a company through which I can start contracting out my services, etc.

A goal? A goal implies a measurement, either relative or absolute. Maybe I want to be the best truck driver or have driven a million miles without an accident. What’s an objective? Let’s suggest an objective is a collection of goals that share a common theme and set of values. Being the best driver might be an objective, because there are so many factors that come together to define “best”, while driving a million miles without an accident is a clear and measurable goal, which contributes to achieving my objective of being the best driver.

Now that we’re cleared up what a strategy is, how do we create one? Please check out my blog on strategic planning for the high-level process that we use at OPTIMUM Process Solutions, or contact me for further information.


Martin Rybiak is a professional engineer and management consultant, with thirty years of operations experience. He is the founder of OPTIMUM Process Solutions, an Edmonton based management consulting practice that focuses on helping small to medium sized enterprises improve business and operations processes, and create the cultural transformation necessary to make those improvements stick.

Contact Martin Rybiak P.Eng., Certified Management Consultant for a free consultation:
Phone: (780) 405-9417
Email: mrybiak@opsinc.ca