Seven priorities. Eleven imperatives. The "Strategic Framework."

There are lots of ways to articulate a company strategy to communicate it to employees, but the problem is that many strategies are just the equivalent of empty suits. You know: well-tailored, neatly pressed, but they don't actually have any substance.

Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, calls this problem "fluff."

"Fluff," writes Mr. Rumelt, "is superficial restatement of the obvious combined with a generous sprinkling of buzz-words. Fluff masquerades as expertise, thought, and analysis."

How can you identify whether a strategy is "fluffy?" When the strategy contains "'Sunday' words (words that are inflated and unnecessarily abstruse) and apparently esoteric concepts to create the illusion of high-level thinking," Mr. Rumelt explains.

Mr. Rumelt, a professor at the UCLA Anderson graduate school, gives an example of a major retail bank's overarching strategy statement:

Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.

When we take this apart, we realize that:

  • "Intermediation" means that the company accepts deposits and then lends them to others. In other words, it is a bank.
  • "The buzz-phrase 'customer-centric' could mean that the bank competes by offering depositors and lenders better terms or better service," writes Mr. Rumelt. "But an examination of its policies and products does not reveal any distinction in this regard. The phrase 'customer-centric intermediation' is pure fluff.

In other words, when you "pull off the fluffy covering," you're left with the reality that the bank's fundamental strategy is being . . . yes, a bank.

A second big mistake companies make when articulating strategy is the laundry list (often filled, by the way, with nothing but fluffy words.) But a list is not a strategy . . . it's just a list.

Mr. Rumelt explains that such lists "usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders make suggestions as to things they would like to see done. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day's collection into the 'strategic plan.' Then, in recognition that it is a dog's dinner, the label 'long-term' is added, so that none of them need to be done today."

He gives the example of a small city's "strategic plan," which contained 47 "strategies" and 178 (that's right, 178) action items.

If you're a member of the leadership team, you can prevent these problems by encouraging your colleagues to work with you to create a tangible, meaningful strategy.

But you can even have an impact if you're further down the food chain in your organization--someone who manages communication or Human Resources, for example.

How? By using internal research to demonstrate that fluffy strategies don't provide direction or motivation for employees--just confusion and apathy.

As Mr. Rumelt writes, "Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes."

Bad strategy, on the other hand, is just a big meaningless mess.