Strategy defies description

In a famous Hindu parable, three blind men encounter an elephant for the first time and try to describe it, each touching a different part. “An elephant is like a snake,” says one, grasping the trunk. “Nonsense; an elephant is a fan,” says another, who holds an ear. “A tree trunk,” insists a third, feeling his way around a leg.

Similar confusion surrounds the notion of strategy. The word is tossed around promiscuously. The fact that there are so many competing conceptions of strategy suggests that the concept is subjective and ambiguous enough to defy any singular definition.

Strategy is important but it is also wickedly hard to deal with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertain outcomes in a competitive landscape. Getting it right is an uphill struggle, whether in business, athletics, military affairs, politics or other human endeavors. Strategy is an art, not a science.

The confusion surrounding the subject of strategy presents a challenge, especially for students. It requires them to think in interdisciplinary terms, that invariably means finding connections, for as historian Edith Hamilton put it, “to see anything in relation to other things is to see it simplified”. For example, business students struggle to integrate and coordinate various functional areas. They get caught between warring disciplines such as finance, accounting, and marketing. This is especially difficult in an academic environment with the pressure to specialize.

Strategy: the word is beguiling and elusive, but do we really know what it means? Is it as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I know it when I see it”?

To put it simply, strategy is the link that connects resources with a set of realistic and prioritized objectives. Some theorists suggest a practical way to think about strategy is that it is a bridge connecting means to ends and the present to the future. Scratch that. Because the metaphor is at odds with reality. Strategies are far from linear.

There are circles and waves and dead ends and the inevitable influence of chance. But they rarely form a straight line. Events seldom conform to expectations. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the mouth.

The question that haunts every strategy is “how.” How do you get from means to ends? It’s always the how before the who and why. Strategy is the relationship that unfolds at the intersection of means and ends.

Although your objectives may be infinite, available resources are finite. One challenge in developing a successful strategy is to keep goals within resources and not to confuse means with ends. That requires lining up feasible objectives in a queue and making hard decisions about trade-offs.

Strategy is more like having a map. It helps you navigate the distance between means and ends. It transports you from one place to another. It illuminates the competitive landscape with alternative routes. It traverses distance and time. Maps give you greater control over your surroundings. They help you see into the future; what you seek to accomplish and how you should go about it.

Strategy is not fixed; it’s not a blueprint. It is an iterative, continuous process that involves seeking feedback, dealing with surprises, and correcting course when necessary, all while keeping the ultimate objective in view. It is not a three-act play, but more like a soap opera; one thing following another.

Life often goes in a direction not of your choosing. That is why you need to adapt. No strategy is built to last forever. It is wise to allow for considerations of changing circumstances.

Changes in the external environment frequently are a catalyst for strategy. If you are not growing and evolving, you’re standing still and the rest of the world is surging ahead. It is Darwinism at its most refined; you develop the resources that allow you to survive or you just hide. But even that will not last for long.

Originally Published: June 30, 2018


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