The First Step in Strategy: Look at the Facts

One step that is often left out of the strategy process is to look at the facts of the current situation, not just the “reality.” Now most people – and most dictionaries – would probably say that fact and reality are the same thing. But are they? We find that in their usage they can often mean very different things.

A fact is a true statement about something that has happened in the past or is happening in the present. It comes from the Latin (factum) for “that which is done.” It belongs to the universe and is true on its own merits.

Reality, however, is much more difficult to pin down. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone suddenly exclaimed, “The reality is…,” and then finished their sentence not with a list of facts but with their interpretation of the facts? “Reality” in this sense refers to a coherent picture of the world that this person has created in order to make sense or meaning of the facts.

“Reality” speaks not just to the past and present, but also to the future, since people base their actions on what they believe reality to be. But since there are no facts about the future (nothing in the future has yet been done), reality cannot be a function of the facts alone. A person’s “reality” is their interpretation of the facts; it belongs to them and reflects their own attitudes, beliefs, and life experiences.

As a result, realities may attach the following elements to the facts:

Value judgments Fact: My assistant was late three times this week.
Reality: My assistant manages his time poorly.
Comparisons to an unspoken standard Fact: I’ve worked here for 12 years.
Reality: I’m the most experienced person on the team.
Descriptions of the inner state or motivations of another Fact: My supervisor told me to take out the trash.
Reality: My supervisor doesn’t respect me.
Critiques and recommendations Fact: We have one teacher for every 25 students.
Reality: We need more teachers.
Attributions of causality Fact: You bought a dress. I didn’t buy a suit.
Reality: I couldn’t buy a suit because you spent all our extra money on a dress.

One can imagine the actions that the person believing in these realities might take (not giving their assistant greater responsibility, not listening to their colleagues’ ideas, etc.), even though a reality – unlike a fact – is not intrinsically true. Realities are not true or false, right or wrong, or good or bad. The only question is whether or not a particular reality helps the person who created it achieve the results they want to achieve.

Many strategy processes take multiple realities into account by interviewing stakeholders, consulting recognized subject matter experts, and reviewing industry or sector reports. Those leading the process often believe that the answer to their strategic issues lies at the nexus of these multiple realities. But all of these are separate from the actual facts of the situation, and these facts may be the best guide to the next steps that an organization needs to take.

The following exercise will help you differentiate fact from reality as a first step in your strategy process.

Instructions

  • Choose a strategic issue you would like to understand more clearly.
  • With respect to that strategic issue, write a short description (e.g., half-page) of the current situation using only statements of fact, not of reality.
  • Review what you have written to make sure it only contains statements of fact. Revise your narrative if it includes any of the following:
    • Value judgments
    • Comparisons to unspoken standards
    • Descriptions of the inner state or motivations of another
    • Critiques and recommendations
    • Attributions of causality
  • Have a friend or colleague read your description to help you find any statements of reality you may have missed.
  • You now have a clear statement of the facts of this situation. What reality could you create – that is consistent with these facts – that would most help you achieve the results you want?