Craig Lawrence author, military historian and lecturer in strategy

STRATEGY


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WHAT IS STRATEGY, wHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT AND WHAT ARE IT'S CHARACTERISTICS?

​STRATEGY - AN INTRODUCTION

Strategy has been around for a very long time. The word has its origins in classical Greek[2] but, despite its long history, there’s still a great deal of discussion about what it means. For example, if you Google ‘what is strategy?’, you will get nearly four billion answers,[3] which is a lot by any measure. The main problem is that strategy means different things to different people. To some, its synonymous with a high-level plan; to others, it’s just a word you add to other words to make them sound better or more important. Sir Hew Strachan, a renown historian with a profound understanding of strategy, suggests that ‘the word strategy has acquired a universality which has robbed it of its meaning and left it only with banalities.’[4] Richard Rumelt, business guru and author of the best-selling Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters, concurs, believing that ‘the word ‘strategy’ has become a verbal tic.’[5] Sir Lawrence Freedman, arguably the UK’s most esteemed living authority on strategy, acknowledges this unfortunate state of affairs but also notes ‘yet strategy remains the best word we have for expressing attempts to think about actions in advance, in light of our goals and our capacities.’[6] And this gets at the essence of what real strategy is all about. In a nutshell, it’s about identifying where you want to be in the future and then working out how you’re going to get there, despite having little real control over how the future will unfold or how other actors will behave.

In the late 1980’s, Arthur F Lykke, a retired Army colonel working at the US Army War College, suggested that strategy could be expressed as a formula where: ‘Strategy’ = ‘Ends’ + ‘Ways’ + ‘Means’[7]

Lykke believed that the three components of strategy were like the legs of a stool which, if they were not all in balance, would tilt, creating risk. Lykke’s formula has shaped the way many people have viewed strategy for decades; even today, the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), a global leader in the postgraduate study of strategy and the College where I was Course Director, defines strategy as ‘a course of action that integrates ends, ways and means to meet policy objectives.’[viii] There is nothing wrong with Lykke’s definition, indeed, at the time he proposed it, it served as a salutary reminder that, unless they were appropriately resourced, the US Military’s strategies were highly unlikely to succeed. But the problem with Lykke’s definition is that it doesn’t capture the unpredictable ‘future’ aspect very well, if at all. It rather implies that if the ‘ends’, ‘ways’ and ‘means’ are all in balance, then the strategy will most likely succeed. Unfortunately, life is seldom that straightforward as the future has a habit of unfolding in the most unexpected ways.

Harry Yarger, author of the excellent Strategy Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy, takes a different view:

‘Strategy provides a coherent blueprint to bridge the gap between the realities of today and a desired future. It is the disciplined calculation of overarching objectives, concepts, and resources within acceptable bounds of risk to create more favourable future outcomes than might otherwise exist if left to chance or the hands of others.’[ix]

Yarger’s definition highlights the point that one of the defining characteristics of strategy is that it looks to the future and therefore operates in a world of uncertainty. This is one of the reasons that strategies are different to plans. As Freedman notes, ‘a plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another.’[x] In other words, plans operate where there is little uncertainty. He goes on to state that ‘strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns.’[xi] Add in other variables, such as global pandemics and financial crises, sudden spikes in energy prices, shock election or referendum results, the actions of other states or even giant container ships getting stuck in the Suez Canal and it becomes apparent very quickly that trying to chart a course through the unpredictable turbulence of the future is a tricky business, even if your strategy’s ‘ends’, ‘ways’ and ‘means’ are all in balance.

Richard Rumelt believes that ‘a strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy.’[xii] This pragmatic approach encourages clarity of purpose, which is a defining characteristic of effective strategies, but the difficulty is the nature of the obstacles, challenges or problems that most strategies are required to address. To understand this better, it helps to step back in time nearly half a century to 1973.  In June of that year, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two professors of urban planning at the University of California, published a ground-breaking paper that differentiated between ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ problems and what they called ‘wicked’ problems.[xiii] Their proposition was that societal problems were ‘inherently different from the problems that scientists and perhaps some classes of engineers deal with.’[xiv] They argued that these problems, such as solving a mathematical equation or analysing the structure of an unknown chemical compound, were ‘tame’ because, although they might be complicated and technically difficult, there is little doubt that a definitive solution exists and it’s clear when the problem has been solved. Other problems, such as confronting crime or addressing poverty are ‘wicked’ because there is a high degree of uncertainty about both the nature of the problem and the solution. The uncertainty might be because the problem is difficult to define or because the environment in which the problem exists is constantly changing.


Keith Grint, one of the foremost experts in the resolution of contemporary problems, believes that wicked problems tend to be embedded in the environment and the relationship between cause and effect is therefore difficult to discern.[xv] What this means in practice is that when an action is applied to try to treat the problem, there is likely to be an unintended consequence somewhere else. As he notes, ‘this is typical of what happens when we try to solve wicked problems – other problems emerge to compound the original problem’[xvi] The uncertainty might even be because a definitive solution does not actually exist and the best we can hope for is to identify a range of measures that might improve the situation, rather than resolve it outright. Ronald Heifetz, one of the first people to consider how such problems might be addressed, described these sorts of challenges as ‘adaptive’ because they cannot be resolved by good management or technical expertise alone. Instead, their resolution requires innovation and constant learning as the dynamics of the problem change.[xvii] In trying to achieve a desired future endstate, strategies must be designed in the expectation that they will confront these sorts of ‘wicked’ or ‘adaptive’ problems, another defining characteristic.

Because they seek to shape the future, which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), and/or because they have to address problems that are ill defined, difficult to understand and unlikely to have a single solution, strategies need to be highly adaptable by design. This is another characteristic that differentiates them from plans. The need for adaptability also places a premium on a strategy being underpinned by a ‘big idea’ or ‘guiding policy’.[xviii] This is an innovative approach that turns the strategy into more than the sum of its parts. Rumelt describes it as ‘an insight that, when acted upon, provide[s] a much more effective way to compete – the discovery of hidden power in the situation.’[xix] In business, it’s the brilliant insight that establishes the company as a leader in its field, whether in overcoming a significant threat that destroys much of the competition (such as COVID-19) or in identifying what Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne refer to as the blue ocean of a new market that nobody else has thought of before.[xx] At the national/political level, Freedman puts it succinctly in describing strategy as being ‘about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.’[xxi] As well as giving the strategy a ‘magnifying’ ability, the ‘big idea’ enhances the strategy’s resilience by providing a guiding principle when circumstances change, which they inevitably will, and the strategy needs to be adapted. So having a central ‘big idea’ is another characteristic of effective strategies and this is why creativity is so important in a strategy’s development, where creativity can be defined as ‘making loose, or freeform associations between seemingly unrelated phenomena’[xxii] or, as British writer and comedian John Cleese prefers, ‘new ways of thinking about things’.[xxiii]

A fifth characteristic is that strategies are high level.[xxiv] They set out the desired direction of travel of an organisation, or what David Petraeus calls its ‘azimuth.’[xxv] And a final characteristic is that they must provide what Jeffrey Meiser, a US academic at the forefront of strategy development, calls a ‘theory of success’ as not only does this encourage creative thinking but, and more importantly, it ‘forces strategists to clarify exactly how they plan to cause the desired endstate to occur.’[xxvi] This last point is critical: whatever else a strategy does, and notwithstanding the turbulence and uncertainty that lie ahead once it starts being implemented, it must explain how the desired endstate is going to be achieved. With that in mind, it is worth reflecting on this finding from the formal inquiry into Britain’s military intervention in Iraq in 2003 which, the inquiry concluded, ended a ‘very long way from success’:[xxvii]

‘Crucially, UK strategies tended to focus on describing the desired end state rather than how it would be reached. On none of the 20 occasions when UK strategy was reconsidered was a robust plan for implementation produced. Setting a clear direction of travel is a vital element of an effective strategy, but strategies also require a serious assessment of the material resources available and how they can best be deployed to achieve the desired end state.’[xxviii]

The aim of this short introduction on the nature of strategy is to provide the context for the rest of the guide. In doing this, it identifies seven characteristics that define highly effective strategies:

-  They have clarity of purpose (why a strategy is needed and what its desired endstate is).
-  They are designed to operate in the world of uncertainty (in VUCA environments).
-  They are designed to address ‘wicked problems’, where neither the problem nor the solution is easily defined.
-  They are highly adaptable (so the strategy can be modified as the situation changes, or when it becomes apparent that assumptions underpinning the strategy’s development were flawed).
-  They are highly innovative, with a central ‘big idea’ or ‘guiding policy’ that ‘magnifies’ their effect and also enhances their resilience.
-  They operate at a high level, determining the direction of travel of an organisation or state.
-  They provide a ‘theory of success’ (or ‘theory of victory’[xxix]) that explains how the desired endstate is to be achieved, rather than just a general approach.

The five-stage approach explained in this guide is designed to help develop strategies that have the above characteristics. It is not a template for you to fill in, because these never work when developing strategy, but a way of thinking about the design of your strategy and the analysis that underpins it. Based on 14 high-level critical-thinking questions,[xxx] dispersed over the five thematic stages, it should help you develop and implement a strategy that, going back to Yarger’s definition, takes uncertainty into account and provides a ‘blueprint to bridge the gap between the realities of today and a desired future.’[xxxi] It should also ensure that your strategy’s ‘ends’, ‘ways’ and ‘means’ are in balance.

The last part of the guide identifies some of the qualities associated with effective strategic leadership and suggests what senior leaders can do to help the strategy-making process. This is something that is becoming more important as our increasingly interconnected and entwined societies mean that many problems that might previously have been in the ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ category have migrated into the ‘wicked’ category. With that in mind, it is worth concluding this short introduction by reflecting on Heifetz’s view of contemporary leadership:

‘In short, the prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a vision and aligning people with that vision is bankrupt because it continues to treat adaptive situations as if they were technical: The authority figure is supposed to divine where the company is going, and people are supposed to follow. Leadership is reduced to a combination of grand knowing and salesmanship. Such a perspective reveals a basic misconception about the way businesses succeed in addressing adaptive challenges.’[xxxii]

Endnotes:
1.    Frank Hoffman, ‘Grand Strategy: The Fundamental Considerations,’ Orbis (Fall 2014), 474.
2.    Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.
3.    Searching ‘what is strategy?’ on Google on 15 Feb 2022 yielded 3,860,000 different results.
4.    Hew Strachan, ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy,’ Survival 47, no. 3 (2005), 34.
5.    Richard P Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters (Profile Books, 2017 edition), 5.
6.    Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.
7.    Arthur F Lykke Jr, ‘Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy’ in US Army War College: Guide to Strategy, edited by Joseph R Cerami and James F Holcomb Jr (2001), 179.
8.    The Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), Getting Strategy Right (Enough) (HMSO, 2017), 6. Note that this definition is based on one proposed by the House of Commons Defence Committee. In January 2014, noting that there was ‘a need for an agreed definition of strategy,’ the committee proposed that strategy be defined as ‘a course of action integrating ends, ways and means to meet policy objectives.’ This definition was accepted by the then Secretary of State for Defence. See: House of Commons, Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part One – Seventh Report of Session 2013-14, Volume I (HMSO, 2014), 3.
9.    Harry R Yarger, Strategy Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy (US Government, 2006), 5.
10.  Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.
11.  Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.
12.  Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters (Profile Books, 2017), 41.
13.  Horst W J Rittel and Melvin M Webber, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, Volume 4 (June 1973), 160.
[xiv]     Horst W J Rittel and Melvin M Webber, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, Volume 4 (June 1973), 160.
[xv]      Keith Grint, Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the Role of Leadership (The British Association of Medical Managers, 2008), 13.
[xvi]     Keith Grint, Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the Role of Leadership (The British Association of Medical Managers, 2008), 13.  
[xvii]     The concept of ‘adaptive’ and ‘technical’ problems is explored in Ronald A Heifetz’s seminal book Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994)
[xviii]    Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters (Profile Books, 2017), 77.
[xix]     Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters (Profile Books, 2017), 31.
[xx]     In their book Blue Ocean Strategy, Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe blue oceans as ‘defined by untapped market space, demand creation, and the opportunity for highly profitable growth.’ They contrast this with red oceans where ‘industry boundaries are defined and accepted, and the competitive rules of the game are known. Here, companies try to outperform their rivals to grab a greater share of existing demand. As the market space gets crowded, prospects for profits and growth are reduced. Products become commodities, and the cutthroat competition turns the red ocean bloody.’ (See: W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy (Harvard Business School Press, 2005), 4.
[xxi]      Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.
[xxii]     Robert Winston, The Human Mind and How to Make the Most of It (Bantam Press, 2003), 343 citing Sternberg, R.J., Kaufman, J.C., Pretz, J.E., The Creativity Conundrum: A Propulsion Model of Creative Contributions (Philadelphia, PA, 2002).
[xxiii]     John Cleese, Creativity: A short and cheerful guide (Hutchinson, 2020), 3.
[xxiv]     Craig Lawrence and Matthew Burgess, ‘Strategy for Governors: Critical Thinking’, in Independent Insight (Summer Term 2019), 20.
[xxv]     General David H Petraeus, ‘On Strategic Leadership: An Interview with David H Petraeus (USA Retired),’ Parameters, 45, no. 4 (2016): 75.
[xxvi]     Jeffrey W Meiser, ‘Are Our Strategic Models Flawed? Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy’, Parameters, 46(4), Winter 2016-17.
[xxvii]    Sir John Chilcot, The Iraq Inquiry – Statement by Sir John Chilcot: 6 July 2016, 2, 11.
[xxviii]   UK Cabinet Office, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry: Volume 8, Section 9.8 (HMSO, 2016), 501.
[xxix]     Eliot A Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Free Press, 2002), 33; also David H Ucko and Robert Egnell, Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia University Press, 2015), 147.
[xxx]     Where critical thinking can be defined as ‘…a deeper kind of thinking in which we do not take things for granted but question, analyse and evaluate what we read, hear, say, or write. It is a general term used to identify essential mindsets and skills that contribute to effective decision making.’ See: Monash University, Critical Thinking (see: https://www.monash.edu/rlo/research-writing-assignments/critical-thinking accessed on 23 January 2022).
[xxxi]     Harry R Yarger, Strategy Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy (US Government, 2006), 5.
[xxxii]    Ronald A Heifetz and Donald L Laurie, “The Work of Leadership”, in Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads: On Leadership (Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2011), 77.

‘A fundamental lesson from history is that strategy is necessarily purposeful, but must be designed in a world of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty.’ Frank Hoffman [1]