Strategic is not a euphemism for important
There are few words so hollowed out by overuse as strategy. It has become a mere claim for attention, which sadly obscures our understanding of it. In the words of Colin Gray (Fighting Talk), “Strategic is a good descriptor. It is a word of power, a legitimizer. In practice, it often succeeds in securing some grade inflation for the study or idea being presented.”
This article is the first of a two part series. In this first part, I define strategy. This will enable me set out some principles for good strategy in the second. Amusingly, given the definition below, this makes part two a strategy for strategising.
A strategy is a principle for choosing action. It tries to ensure our actions are likely to achieve our goals. It therefore embodies a theory or set of beliefs about how the world works and how the world is. If you want x, given y, then try z.
One of the best books on strategy for the business context is Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. As he says:
“Despite the roar of voices wanting to equate strategy with ambition, leadership, “vision,” planning, or the economic logic of competition, strategy is none of these. The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.”Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters by Richard Rumelt
If your goal is to reduce the gap in academic outcomes between children from rich and poor households (x), your strategy will depend on how you think the world works. For example, you may believe that poor children achieve good outcomes at a certain sort of school but that they typically don’t get to go to those schools (y). Therefore, your strategy will be to improve school access (z). This is not an action, but a principle. You will evaluate and select possible actions based on whether they tend to improve access.
The beliefs that inform the strategy are fundamental. There are two sorts of beliefs – the general and the specific. That is, beliefs about the laws and rules at play, and beliefs about the specific situation. In physics, the laws of force and motion are immutable, but how far one ball rebounds after being struck by another depends on their actual mass and velocity, among other factors.
Thus, an experienced military commander may have the goal of taking a battlefield with minimal casualties. They will be aware that an inexperienced force often flees the field if confronted by a fast moving opponent and if aware of an easy route to retreat. Whether they adopt a strategy of rapid frontal assault in this case will depend on their belief about the experience of their opponent and the nature of the terrain.
Be explicit about the motivating beliefs behind your strategy, both the laws and the facts, to ensure your thinking is rigorous and to invite critique.
A goal by itself is not a strategy. But too often we see goals presented as such. Goals are important – they give meaning to a strategy. You can’t talk of a rational strategy without a goal. Goals can be inspiring and motivational; they will be a vital part of your communication. But they are not strategies. “We will have the best selling product in our segment” is a goal. We will achieve this by product innovation (or cost leadership, or strategic partnering) is a strategy. Whether it works depends on whether your beliefs are correct in your context.
Sometimes the gap between goal and action is insignificant. If your goal is to reach the bottom of the garden, you don’t need a strategy, you just put one foot in front of the other until you get there. It’s obvious. It follows that strategy only becomes necessary when there is a wide gap between your goals and your possible actions – when you need some principles to refer back to when making your choices.
This gap may consist of uncertainty or complexity, or unpalatability, fatigue, fear, conflict of interests… Anything that might tend over time to cause choices and actions to diverge from goals.
One of the most important gaps is the one that occurs between people. You have the goal, someone else (out of your direct supervision) determines the actions. It is shared strategy that helps ensure their choices advance your goals.
We therefore have three concepts:
- Goals, aims or objectives
- Actions, plans or choices
- And the strategies or principles that bind them together, which are based on beliefs or theories about the world.
You need clarity and coherence among all three. And they can occur in repeating layers – the action or choice at the end of one level can become the goal or objective at the start of a lower layer. This does not repeat many times though. With each layer, the gap between goal and action shrinks; steps become simpler, quicker, clearer and at some point you can move confidently from goal to action. From that point, you just have nested levels of actions.
This definition of strategy is not merely academic. It suggests that when you have high level goals and objectives, before leaping into action, you take some time to reflect on what is most likely to work at a generic or principled level. What do you think is going on here? What does your experience tell you is the right thing to do? What assumptions are you making about the specific circumstances and should you gather more information?
Take time to formulate this clearly so it can be worked with and tested. Although your thought process could have been either analytical or intuitive, make the end result explicit and concrete. A doctrine.
And when you are in the thick of things, you refer back to this strategy to select amongst the various more or less uncertain and unclear options before you.
The use of the word ‘theory’ as underpinning strategy is important. It reminds us that a strategy is useful only insofar as it based on an accurate understanding of the world, but that our understanding is always flawed. Helpfully, we can revise a theory in the light of evidence. Think of your actions as a rough and ready experiment. If pursuing them does not, in fact, bring you closer to your goal, then your theory – behind your strategy – may need revising. This is why an explicit statement of both goals and strategy is so important. It enables you to evaluate and revise them in relation to each other. ( Although the opportunity to learn from your mistakes may not be available when it comes to military strategy.)
Of course, the real world of action is not a randomised control trial. There are many confounding forces and factors that will obscure your theory. There is luck, both good and ill. Recall also, that the proper template for a strategy is ‘if x, given y, then z’. Y is not just general laws of action, it includes your assumptions about the context – your capabilities, the environment, the intent of other actors. There may well be circumstances where z leads to x; but you may not be in those circumstances.
There may be times when, with clear goals and a well articulated strategy, you can determine your actions in advance: we will do this, then that. That’s a plan – which is not the same as a strategy. Plans are particularly important when there are many different actions depending on each other, and the order and relationships between them matter. There may also be times when the situation is so uncertain that you have to wait and use the strategy to guide your choices in the moment – consistent purposeful opportunism. Most real world situations are a blend of the two. The danger is when you confuse your plan with a strategy. A plan is a predetermined list of actions in order; it was the strategy that guided the formulation of this list. If the assumptions behind the strategy change – the givens – then that list of actions is no longer valid, however painstaking it was to compile and agree.
With this definition you can determine the precursors and consequences of strategy. You can determine when a strategy is necessary and whether the concept you are discussing is indeed a strategy. You can also approach it in such a way that your strategy will improve and become better at conforming your actions to your goals.
You will at least be genuinely strategising. Whether your strategy is good or bad, however, is another matter. We’ll deal with that in part two with some more help from Clausewitz.