All strategy is relative

The word strategy has undergone much inflation in recent years. There is no strategy deficit; today, everyone is a strategist. The word is employed promiscuously as a value-enhancing qualifier: a strategy for tax preparation, for breastfeeding, for losing weight. The word has been drained of meaning.

In the business world, books about strategy are legion. For instance, airport bookshops, as any regular traveler knows, are replete with books on successful business strategies that make extravagant promises. The road to strategy is paved with platitudes in these popular books: Think outside the Box, Break Down Siloes, Move the Needle, Paradigm Shift, Low Hanging Fruit, and Aim High, so if you miss you won’t shoot your foot off.

When reading books on business strategy that offer prescriptions for managers, often one comes away with the uneasy sense that each author has defined the term in self-serving ways to support whatever management shtick he or she happens to be promoting, creating a strategic straightjacket, if not a cottage industry, with thoughts that don’t extend much beyond the drabbest clichés.

In this context, strategy may seem like nothing more than an impressive label pasted on an author’s pet idea to boost sales of his or her book. As the late Peter Drucker, a widely noted management consultant, educator, and prolific author once commented, “I have been saying for many years that we are using the word ‘guru’ because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit in a headline.”

Put simply, strategy is aligning means with ends, and the trick is getting the proportions right. The alignment, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. The question that haunts every strategy is “how”. How do you get from means to ends? It is always the how before the who and why. Strategy happens in the space between means and ends. It is the relationship that unfolds at the intersection of the two.

Consider an example from the wide world of sports: regardless of the quality of its players, no National Football League team can hope to reach the Super Bowl without an effective strategy to guide its performance. The ability to develop and implement a strategy is the secret to success for such coaching icons such as Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi and of course, Bill Belichick.

They all understood the importance of beginning each season with a strategy that incorporates everything knowable at the time about the performance potential of their own players and how best to exploit these resources, plus the potential of opposing players and how best to defuse it. Not to be overlooked is that the competition gets a vote. And all this knowledge is written down (along with accompanying tables and diagrams) in thick playbooks.

But they also understood that no pre-season strategy is ever carved in stone. It must be continually revised in response to the inevitability of events that can never be anticipated—like injuries to key players and to those on opposing teams, the unexpected emergence of star rookies and the mystical ability of battered old pros to somehow pull it together one more time as the season unfolds.

To quote the justly criticized former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “stuff happens”. No meaningful National Football League strategy ever has a half-life of more than a week or so. Top coaches know this. They even welcome it because of the fresh opportunities it can bring.

The dirty little secret they understand is that you don’t have to get your strategy perfectly right, as long as it’s not so far wrong you cannot put it right quickly. If the competition has a poor strategy, your strategy only has to be less poor. Strategy is a relative venture.

Finally, it is always useful to remember Damon Runyon’s advice: “Maybe the race isn’t always to the swift. Or the battle to the strong. But that’s still the way to bet.”

Originally Published: March 16, 2019


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