Photography by Image Workshop

You can’t charge for a plan, but you can charge for a strategy.

Here I am, just twelve weeks into my ‘new career’ of design researcher (rather than design practitioner), and one topic of confusion seems to be following me: the difference between a strategy and a plan. It was a topic at the monthly meet-up I host, in an interview in the studio management program I wrote, and then, just yesterday, it popped up in my LinkedIn feed.

Firstly, a caveat. My thinking has been strongly influenced by Jim Antonopoulos via his Strategy Masterclass. I’m a devotee of his program. I did it last year preparing for my new role, and I found it of great value. It’s instrumental to how I use strategy.

And to start, a fun fact: did you know that the greek work strategia literally translates to ‘an office of a general or commander’? AKA the office of the leader.

Strategy is about leadership and it’s about winning.

Defining strategy and planning.

Two ways I remember the difference

  1. Strategy is positioning, planning is execution.
  2. Strategy is the whole puzzle, tactics are the pieces.


Military strategy

The Revolutionary War: George Washington knew he would never beat the British in a series of set battles. Instead, he opted for a ‘hit and run’ approach with the sole objective of keeping his army intact. He won the war by outlasting the British and avoiding major confrontations unless they were favorable.

His strategy was a war of attrition. His plan was a ‘hit and run’ until the enemy is worn out.

The Napoleonic War: Napoleon was outnumbered by the coalition forces. His objective was to isolate the coalition forces and beat their armies separately – a classic divide and conquer strategy.

His strategy was to face his enemies separately. His plan was to divide his enemy by marching his army between the coalition forces.

A design strategy

One of the last projects I completed before my career move was for DrinkWise. It was a great job with a wide brief: provide ‘information’ to schools and associations for scheduled information nights.

My strategy:

  • unpacked the brief and identified the goal(s): the crux of the matter, what I was setting out to do
  • defined what I would need: the resources (design and financial), skills (internal and external) and knowledge
  • assessed what else was out there: not really competition in this case but other info existing, if it worked and why it did/didn’t
  • identified potential barriers/threats to achieving the goal
  • considered alternatives and ways to evaluate the alternatives so I could assess which is the best one
  • identified what success would look like in numbers: some quantifiable method to measure if/when I reached the goal
  • helped manage the milestones, budget and resources
  • listed the deliverables: what I needed to deliver in short term and long term goals.

In essence, my strategy was a reverse brief to the client. A document (part written, part drawn) that we all agreed to before any work commenced. A document that had value to us both, and as such, formed a substantial part of the budget.

It was only once the strategy was agreed (and that took a month of research, discussion, iterations, and more discussion), that I moved to my plan (which essentially was a list of tactics with kpi’s).

The plan was my roadmap to implementation:

  • I defined all the tactics (activities) I needed to do to bring the strategy together. I won’t list them all but one example centred on the photography.
  • I identified the team I needed to recruit for that tactic: eg location scout, my trusty producer Claire (to handle things like the working with children permit and find a fake belly to make an unpregnant woman look pregnant – don’t even go there – it had to be made to measure, sheeesh), talent, hair and makeup , catering and lastly but not least, the photographer.
  • I created a monthly, weekly and daily schedule with touchpoints to help prioritise the tasks.

While the strategy was shared and approved, the plan was an internal document. I shared parts with the client, but my job was the shield them from a majority of the trials and tribulations needed to attain the goal (did I mention the belly?). Touchpoints kept them up to date with the short- and long-term deliverables.

In writing the strategy for this project I was the leader, in a true military sense. I led the charge and was the sole person accountable for the strategy, its success and outcomes.

I was also part of a larger strategy team that I recruited. To learn who the others were (or should be), you’ll have to do the Strategy Masterclass 😉


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Carol Mackay

Carol’s design expertise is in making the complex simple. Her skill is in packaging complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information to be easily understood and digested. 2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she is moving from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School.

Carol has just written a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. Contact Carol for more information.