Strategy isn’t a goal, a road map, or a plan of action. It’s about the careful imposition of constraints.

Strategy's a funny thing. We take it prima facie that being strategic is a good thing. Everybody who is in any kind of leadership position—or who aspires to be in one—likes to trumpet in their LinkedIn profile that they're a "strategic" thinker. In general, it's understood that a "strategic" option is a better option. And organizations, of course, love "strategic planning" (as opposed to?).

Strategy seems to be one of those fundamental business skills that everyone's expected to develop. But I have a feeling—just a suspicion, mind you—that if you did a quick poll in your average organization, you'd get very little consistency around what being "strategic" mean.

For some people, strategy just seems to mean thinking ahead, or picking the option that's going to be preferable in the long term instead of what's quick and easy. For others, being strategic just seems to mean that somebody put some thought into a decision rather than picking the obvious option.

But I think it's useful to flip things around. I think it's more useful to think about being strategic as putting thought into the options you won't pursue. But it's not just rejecting some options. It's creating a framework that authorizes you to deliberately reject certain options.

In other words, strategy should manufacture constraints. The essence of strategy is the thoughtful narrowing of options based on clear policies, guidelines, or values that the strategist believes will maximize the odds of achieving some result.

If the strategy is legible, it should facilitate clear decision-making in that, when presented with a number of options, the "strategic" option—that is, the one that's consistent with the strategy—should be abundantly clear and the ones that aren't can easily be eliminated.

Of course, the art of strategy is in determining what those guidelines are. That's the hard part: it takes careful study and analysis of the problem space so that the all-important question of "What is going on here?" can be answered with some (but never complete) confidence. The strategist needs to be able to articulate succinctly the nature of the problem space, and develop a hypothesis about how pressure or effort can be exerted against it in order to win some advantage.

From that, the right constraints can be defined; from there, the activities that the team or organization will—and will not—pursue in order to address the challenge that faces them.