Startup strategy levels are essential because founders need to see the forest for the trees. When generals plan a strategic offensive, they look at the war room map. The same concept applies to startup founders. Founders need to view their plans from both a strategic and tactical perspective. Before diving into the details, there is a real value in knowing the overall strategy and plan.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu
Startup Strategy Level – Framework
The six horizons of focus is a framework developed by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. The six horizons of focus align quite nicely with the startup strategy levels. In addition, the horizons of focus further divide the strategy levels (Strategy, Alignment, Tactics) into both an upper and lower level.
What are the startup strategy levels
There are two operating levels within a startup; strategic and tactical. The strategic level is your 40,000-foot view of the market and the level where you chart your course for the startup. The ground level is tactical and where the daily tasks, actions, and issues happen. Finally, sandwiched in between strategy and tactics is the alignment level. Alignment connects strategic plans to the tactical effort to help keep you on track.
The Strategic level is both aspirational and visionary. Think of the strategic level as your 40,000-foot view. This level is the WHY your startup exists and WHERE you are going. The time frame for strategy is usually five to twenty-five years.
Purpose and Principles are your startup’s North Star and the highest level of strategy. The North Star is an essential aid that keeps founders on track while navigating the ups and downs of getting going. The purpose is your organizational “why” and the reason you are in business. Principles are unwavering beliefs closely aligned with organizational values. The time frame and perspective of this horizon of focus are aspirational and long-term (five years and beyond).
Vision and Values A founder’s vision is an inspiring future state of what their startup can become. Values are those standards of behavior and norms that create startup culture. Vision and values make up the lower horizon of focus of the startup strategy level.
The alignment level is where you set goals and measure progress. Alignment connects strategy to execution. First, strategic objectives set the startup’s goals. Then, the team will commit to achieving the goals and create projects that turn ideas into action. A reasonable time frame for goals setting and measurement is typically 90 days.
Strategic goals and objectives are the “what” needs to be accomplished and upper level of alignment. Goals and objectives are the mid-term next step toward achieving a founder’s vision. The Big Hairy Audacious Goal outlined in Jim Collin’s classic “Good to Great” is an excellent goal-setting framework. Although setting strategic goals is essential, achieving them is “priceless.”
Commitment and accountability determine the “who” and the “how” of accomplishing goals. The people accountable for achieving the goals make commitments and plans toward achieving them. Your startup is ready to turn ideas into action with goals set and commitments made.
The tactical level is also known as execution or ground level. Daily tasks, actions, and issues are the currency of the tactical level. The time domain for execution is daily and weekly, with perhaps a monthly retrospective to ensure you continue tracking strategic goals.
Projects and progress are the horizon of focus where ideas turn into action. The project horizon of focus involves allocating resources and starting projects. Weeks and months are reasonable timeframes for measuring project progress.
Action and issues are on the ground level where daily tasks are completed and resolved. Action is the level where you are head down working hard. The time frame for action and issues is daily and weekly.
Startup strategy levels and the implications for startup founders
Startups operate on both strategic and tactical levels. Strategy is the founder’s long-term vision and 40,000-foot view of operations. While execution, on the other hand, is the ground level of daily tactical actions that lead toward achieving the vision. Connecting strategy to execution is the alignment level which ensures tactical action tracks to strategic objectives.
Founders need strategic and tactical perspectives to see the forest for the trees. The startup strategy levels provide a framework to help founders understand the different perspectives. I genuinely hope this framework gives you a better view of the various startup strategy levels and horizons of focus.
Ian Paul Graham
“I help startup founders find product-market fit and build digital demand teams.”