Mapping Strategy


Mapping strategy is depicting complex intentionality. There are a few words (and more) in that sentence that are worth delving into both by words and visually. In this post we’ll do just that.

At the outset, a thought from my favorite paper during my MBA program – I studied Strategy at the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business.

Seeing strategy in terms of activity systems only makes it clearer why organizational structure, systems, and processes need to be strategy-specific. [1]

– Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business Review, 1996
What Is Strategy?

I’m going to reference What Is Strategy? to help make sense of the concept. For variety and reinforcement, I’ll add another perspective on strategy, too.

This post exhibits what are called activity-system maps. In kind, and for example, I have produced an activity-system map as the featured graphic for this post. It depicts Danny Rehr’s Blog and each of its brands. I’ll get into some of its details at the end of the post.

Ultimately, my strategy in this post will explain why mapping strategy is an enlightening way to make sense of the workplace and improve your career.

Complex Brew of Intentionality

When I write that mapping strategy is depicting complex intentionality, I do not mean strategy is a plan. It’s not so simple; strategy is indeed complex. There’s reason for that. I’ll get into definitional differences later. For now, let’s talk coffee (my favorite!).

Starbucks is a coffee joint. So is my local café. While they both serve coffee, their strategies for doing so are VERY different.

Yes, they both flick the lights on in the early morning, unlock their front doors, pour hot water through grounds of roasted coffee beans, and dispense the resulting liquid into a cup for consumption.

Their positioning and activities in the coffee market separate them as competitors. (‘Competitive advantage’ is often used interchangeably with the term strategy.) Separation as competitors is what defines Starbucks and my local café’s products, brands, customer experiences and more. To be sure, Starbucks and my local café are competitors. I could easily walk up the street and grab a Starbucks coffee as opposed to a cup from my local café, or vice versa. In essence, both companies are competing for my coffee spend.

Were it that either party as strategically constituted today assumed the positioning and activities of the other in the market, then both would very likely fail.

Positioning and Activities

Laughable, my local cafe’s owner would not be able to procure enough coffee product to last the next minute! Starbucks is a corporation with a global footprint equaling thousands of outlets. My local café is a one-off, brick-and-mortar store. Their supply chain infrastructures are developed accordingly. Conversely, were Starbucks to take over my local café, its positioning–e.g. the iconically espresso-brown atmosphere, transient or quote-unquote “personal office” experience, inferior coffee product and less-than-from-scratch food offerings–would turn off current clientele. The local crowd expects many of the opposite qualities. Inferred earlier, there’s already a choice, and my local café’s customers choose the local café, not Starbucks.

Strategy Manifested

Both businesses are unique in their positioning and activities; over and above, their choices made to operate define respective complexities. Examples include roast profiles, café atmosphere, staffing, supply chains, hours of operation, local or ubiquitous presence, etc. In comparison and contrast with the other–and importantly all other coffee café businesses–each are unique.

I’ve broken out here usage of the word ‘unique’ across my posts to date. It’s not a recounting; rather, I reflect upon how the word ‘unique’ showcases the interrelatedness of those three principles of business: the individual, the system and strategy.

Such is their respective competitive advantage over the other. That’s strategy manifested.

With that, if Starbucks and my local café as strategically constituted today were to switch places, then there’d be two words for the impostors. Failed strategy.

That begs the question.

What Is Strategy?

Strategy involves what Porter described as “creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.” [1] I have defined the circumstances that make switching positions and activities a death knell for Starbucks and my local café. What an interesting twist to consider, though. It’s more akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

Oh, c’mon. Don’t Starbucks and my local café both serve coffee? Why is this so complicated?

Porter would argue, “strategic positioning means performing different activities from rivals’ or performing similar activities in different ways.” [1] Starbucks has a dominant position in the market, and therefore must perform different activities to sustain its position. One of the more impressive activities they conduct is ensuring consistent flavor of their product across geographies. My local café does not roast its own beans. Instead, it offers different roasters’ products. The variety is a choice made. And, they bake much of their own food offerings. This gives them tighter controls on what’s meaningful to their target customers who want something beyond what’s available everywhere.

The Why of Choices
Another way to look at strategy is behind the why of choices. From global design firm, IDEO, “thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy.” [2] The choices Starbucks and my local café made (Porter would call attention to resulting trade-offs) comprise their positioning and activities. Creating choices and making choices is expertly depicted in IDEO’s ‘Divergent and convergent thinking’ graphic.

This graphic is used with permission from its creator, IDEO. Learn more about them on their website, https://cantwait.ideo.com/.

More about choices, Porter wrote, “positioning choices determine not only which activities a company will perform and how it will configure individual activities but also how activities relate to one another. While operational effectiveness is about achieving excellence in individual activities, or functions, strategy is about combining activities.” [1]

My local café strategically chooses a hyperlocal perspective on its position, thereby focusing on presence, community and tastes that appeal to the local community. These combined activities completely differentiate it from Starbucks, and make it unique, primarily serving coffee notwithstanding.

Strategy Is Uniquely Interrelated

There’s that word again.

‘Unique’ is a word I’ve used somewhat frequently over the life of my blog. Over the course of now 14 blogposts (this being #15), ‘unique’ has been attributed primarily to individuals, systems and strategies. If the theme of my blog is making sense of the workplace and improving others’ careers, then individualism, systems and strategies are unique subject matters.

What’s the takeaway?

These subjects have considerable influence on making sense of the workplace and improving one’s career. It’s worth taking a moment to comprehend the gravity of these factors in your workplace and career.

I’ve broken out here usage of the word ‘unique’ across my posts to date. It’s not a recounting; rather, I reflect upon how the word ‘unique’ showcases the interrelatedness of those three principles of business: the individual, the system and strategy.

How To Scale Up from Scaling-Up Personal Ambition
“No one can create rules for you, personally, because you are unique. It’s up to you.”

Scaling-Up Employee Engagement Is Not A One-Time Thing from Get To Know The Employee Life Cycle
“Gallup found that today’s employees, ‘want purpose and meaning from their work. They want to be known for what makes them unique.’” [3]

3 Reasons Why Employees Are The Company from The Employee
Number 1: Sentience [Anu Madgavkar, et al. in their McKinsey Global Institute report, Human Capital At Work: The Value Of Experience, wrote,] ‘Each person has a unique, living, breathing set of capabilities. Those capabilities belong to the individual, who decides where to put them to work.’” [4]

Culture Is Unique In Every Organization from Making Sense of Organizational Culture
“Did you know? Every organization has a culture. And every culture is unique.”

Systems = Strategy from Systems vs. Teams
“Systems are unique given their parts, interconnections, flows of information, individual purpose (even reliant upon or in support of other systems), structures and behaviors over time. Strategies have many of these same properties. Therein I advance the distinction. Like strategies, systems may be replicated, but never identically.”

Strategy Is Uniquely Interconnected

Let’s have a look at an activity-system map I developed a few years ago to make a few points.

View larger, and in higher definition here.
First, activity-system maps may be used for businesses and individuals.

The activity-system map I have provided is one I made for the subject of an interview I conducted back in 2019. In this graphic, there are strategies in green and activities in gray. Every strategy and activity is interconnected. In a word, the graphic depicts synergy.

From Michael E. Porter’s 1996 Harvard Business Review, What Is Strategy?, article:

Activity-system maps can be useful for examining and strengthening strategic fit. A set of basic questions should guide the process. First, is each activity consistent with the overall positioning – the varieties produced, [and] the needs served…?… Second, are there ways to strengthen how activities and groups of activities reinforce one another? Finally, could changes in one activity eliminate the need to perform others? [1]

Were the activity-system map not to depict synergy, then the individual could review the activity-system map to learn where problems, omissions or opportunities exist to fill in gaps (or scale-up, even).

Second, this person is unique.

How many SEO and marketing strategy business owners are there who are also sponsored athletes, board members, coaches and volunteers? At most, not many.

Throw in working remotely and traveling, along with an overarching strategy to give back to create opportunities for others, and those limited numbers whittle down further still.

Certainly, this person is unique. And the unique make-up is depicted visually.

Third, this is a complex individual.

Complex is defined by my MacBook Pro’s Dictionary App as “consisting of many different and connected parts; not easy to analyze or understand; complicated or intricate.” [5] Mapping strategy makes greater sense of complexity. When that complexity is strategy, then mapping depicts complex intentionality.

Strategy Is Not Planning

Planning is a simple definition, and an even simpler concept. According to my MacBook Pro, planning is “the process of making plans for something.” [6] A teacher once taught me never to use the word (or root) in its own definition.

For a bit more sophistication, I’ll look to the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Roger Martin. He was featured in a recent Harvard Business Review YouTube video in which he defined strategic planning as “a set of activities that the company says it’s going to do.” [7]

That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Planning is devoid of the ‘design’ the same dictionary gave of the word strategy – “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” [8] Once again, Martin provides a bit more sophistication.

A strategy is an integrative set of choices that positions you on a playing field of your choice in a way that you win. So there’s a theory. Strategy has a theory. Here’s why we should be on this playing field, not this other one, and here’s how on that playing field we’re going to be better than anybody else at serving the customers on that playing field. That theory has to be coherent. It has to be doable. You have to translate that into actions for it to be a great strategy. [7]

We see another academician’s perspective on strategy includes choices, positioning, competition [in the market], coherence, and actions (or activities). These elements of a strategy far exceed the task of planning. Not only that, planning is relatively uninspiring; whereas, strategy takes on a life of its own and can be followed. It’s kind of the purpose of organizational direction, now, isn’t it?

What About Intentionality?

The Dictionary App on my computer reveals “a thing intended; an aim or plan; the action or fact of intending.” [9] Intentionality has a premise about it that seemingly goes beyond planning. Intentionality, like fitness for ambition, requires activation, not realization.

I view planning, intentionality and strategy in the following way:

Planning = We could, if

Intentionality = We should, because

Strategy = We will, given…

For more perspective, Bullet Journal inventor, Ryder Carroll, defined a plan in the following way. “Nobody asks ‘how did the chicken cross the road?’…Getting to the other side is a process whose success greatly depends on the steps she did or did not choose to take. That’s what plans are for.” [10]

Versus intention, Carroll wrote, “the purpose of an intention is to be, rather than to arrive. It’s to align your actions with your belief whenever you have an opportunity.”

Intention is more intricate than a plan, and less complex than a strategy.

My Strategy for Danny Rehr’s Blog

Strategy is found everywhere in business – from daily activities, to the purchase of paper clips, to hiring/firing, to occupying this building or that office or going hybrid, to relationships and vendors, to dress code,…and so on and so forth. Strategy drives the business even if and/or when it is not understood! ‘Kinda scary for those leaders and managers who are responsible for business direction.

Ask yourself. Do you know your employer’s strategy? Or, if you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner, do you know your own strategy?

One hopes strategy is known to the business leaders and everyone else in their employ. Yes, the staff really should know the interconnectedness of activities and positioning of the operation to fully comprehend how the business works. Admittedly, below the C-suite and just beneath it, knowing the interconnectedness is unrealistic as the business grows beyond a certain level. Mentally mapping the strategy in that case will fail. This misalignment is what causes breakdowns in communication, “the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” and even redundancy.

Businesses are not smartphones that we just turn on and off, operate when we feel like it, and conduct whatever activities we need to in the moment. Far from it, businesses are intentional, substantiated establishments. A convenient way to make sense of the workplace and improve our careers is through mapping strategy.

I’ll provide my own mapped strategy for this blog and all of its brands as an example.

Download and share this image from my Instagram page (link).

Wait! You’re giving away your strategy?! Aren’t you worried someone will copy it?

Nope.

If someone does copy it, then they’ll do darn near exactly what I’ve done – which is copy the strategy of every blogger and YouTuber before me!

Time out, Danny… Isn’t strategy unique, intentional and all other descriptions given in this post?

Yep.

The strategy or competitive advantage that I have is two-fold.

  1. Me. No one else has my fitness for ambition, or what is the beating heart of Danny Rehr’s Blog.
  2. I have zero profit motive. This is pure joy to me.
Anyway, I’m Not Competing

My strategy is not one based out of competition. I’m competing with no one.

While as a strategist, I know that’s not true. Same time, I do not pay attention to anyone else in this space (i.e. competitors, or competing persuasions upon my audience’s time). I couldn’t begin to tell you the first or even a single blogger or YouTuber who explicitly appeals to my would-be audience.

Were I to publish a post, and no one were to read it, then I wouldn’t blink an eye. I would already be onto writing my next blogpost.

I’m having fun. That’s a goal, so is writing. My strategy calls for basing every goal and activity on my written blog. That’s an intrinsically, rich feeling to me. So, too, would be helping others through partnering and providing multiple outlets for the value I know I can provide. All in all, I take great pleasure in making sense of the workplace and improving others’ careers.

My Positioning and Activities

The positioning and activities I use are choices, to be sure. Consider this rundown:

Book vs. my blog.

Facebook vs. my Twitter account and my Instagram page.

Paid vs. my free offerings.

Video-heavy content vs. my written content and my podcasts.

I am positioning myself through my choices, activities, and their collective trade-offs. Again, one of my goals is to have fun. I’m having a blast! Another is to help others. I do that through information sharing and partnering. Writing is a goal. I’m doing that in my off time to the tune of a blog, a newsletter, Twitter posts, 2 podcasts (blog, and newsletter), Instagram and outreach to partners. This unique, interconnected strategy of mine is terrific – for me. If no one consumes my content…well, that’s OK.

Strategically speaking, I can’t wait to write more in my next blogpost. Join me if you’d like!


[1] Porter, Michael E. “What Is Strategy?”. Harvard Business Review, 1996, https://hbr.org/1996/11/what-is-strategy. Accessed 16 Aug 2022.

[2] IDEO. “IDEO Design Thinking | Design Thinking Defined”. IDEO | Design Thinking, https://designthinking.ideo.com/. Accessed 18 Aug 2022

[3] Building A High-Development Culture Through Your Employee Engagement Strategy. Gallup, Inc., 2019, p. 3, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/355082/employee-engagement-strategy-paper.aspx, Accessed 26 Feb 2021.

[4] Madgavkar, Anu et al. Human Capital At Work: The Value Of Experience. McKinsey Global Institute, Washington, DC, 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/human-capital-at-work-the-value-of-experience. Accessed 2 July 2022.

[5] “Complex”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 18 August 2022.

[6] “Planning”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 18 August 2022.

[7] Martin, Roger. A Plan Is Not A Strategy. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuYlGRnC7J8. Accessed 9 July 2022.

[8] “Strategy”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 18 August 2022.

[9] “Intention”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 18 August 2022.

[10] Carroll, Ryder. “Plans Vs Goals Vs Resolutions Vs Intentions”. Bullet Journal, https://bulletjournal.com/blogs/bulletjournalist/resolutions_vs_intentions. Accessed 18 Aug 2022.


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