What is strategy?

Hew Strachan once stated that the term strategy had ‘acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning’. In the military domain alone, we find national security strategy, national defence strategy, national military strategy, grand strategy, coalition strategy, regional strategy, theatre strategy, and campaign strategy. More broadly we find it applied to plans ranging from very specific tasks (‘strategy for detection of prostate cancer’ and ‘the split-apply-combine strategy for data analysis’) to organisational (‘international marketing strategy’, ‘human research strategy’ and ‘the luxury strategy’) to the state (‘competing visions for US grand strategy’ and ‘a grand strategy for America’).

So how can we develop a common understanding with so much diversity in use without devaluing the word as a cliché? Well, believe it or not, these terms are all linked. A study (see article by the author in this pdf) of the contemporary usage reveals that strategy has a number of common characteristics.

Strategy connects capability with effects. In a military text on teaching strategy (pdf) Robert Kennedy called it the application of available means to accomplish desired ends. While referring to the popular military Ends-Ways-Means paradigm (explained in this pdf and here), it allows us to align what we have (means) with what we can do (ways) to achieve what we want (ends).

Strategy is about planning for the long term. Here we should note two things. First strategy is about planning not doing. Or as Colin Gray said in his seminal work, Modern Strategy, “strategists plan, tacticians do”. Good strategy has coherence, coordinating actions, policies and resources to accomplish an important end. Secondly, strategy is also focused on the future. It generally involves an extended time horizon and provides a blueprint to bridge the gap between realities of today and a desired future.

Strategy implies competition between actors. While Colin Gray stated that strategy is not a game played against nature, this ignores the variability of nature. Competition implies that you are not playing against yourself. There is at least one other actor who’s capability or action can vary. This then leads us to understand that strategy is about risk. No competition, no risk, no advantage. Strategy allows us to seek competitive advantage.

Strategy can only be practised by independent entities. While the use of the term strategy is varied and within a wide range of contexts, what appears to be common is that an effect is only strategic when it affects the whole system. Writers such as Malvern Lumsden and Renee Malan refer to the organisation when they define strategy. Harry Yarger stated that strategy ‘differs from operational art and tactics in functional, temporal, and geographic aspects’. Often, tactical actions are taken in response to a given task and accomplished with provided resources. Strategy, however, appears to rely on organic assets and the specific path is not directed by an external or superior agency. This is how you can create a strategy for yourself but not one for your employer.

Strategy is then a future-orientated intent by an independent actor that connects capability with effect and seeks to create competitive advantage.

If only the practice of strategy was as easy.


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