Surfing for Strategy

Does Justice Potter Stewart’s quote about obscenity: “I know it when I see it,” apply to strategy?  Is strategy some MBA type’s interpretation of elaborate Excel spreadsheets that claim to define the shape of an enterprise’s future?  Is it a carbon copy of something that worked well for another enterprise at a different time, place?

Is strategy solely the product of stained-glass rational thought uncontaminated by the hurly-burly of the real world?  Is it something to fall back on when all else fails? Is it the ad hoc play calling of a CEO whose gut instincts or may be just pure luck have made him or her a Wall Street favorite so far?

The word “strategy” is beguiling, but do we really know what it means?  The coining of a workable framework is a task fraught with danger.  It has to be right enough. It must highlight the core of the subject.

Perhaps it is time to return to basics.  Let’s make a sharp right turn. Consider a somewhat different and perhaps slightly simpler perspective common to and underscoring all strategies used in the business world.  For sure, stated in this rough and ready way, as well as in a manner that invites scholarly challenge, it underlies and accommodates a potentially wide variety of strategies.

Let’s take the capacious model advanced by Arthur F. Lykke, Jr., a military strategist who taught a generation of military leaders at the Army War College in the United States.  He divided military strategy into a ends/ways/means/risk equation.  It is a basic framework for discussing the particulars of a military strategy.  For our purposes, focus on means and ends.

At its most basic, overarching level, strategy is the essential linkage that connects resources with a set of defined, prioritized, and feasible goals that fit the competitive environment.  Usable resources are both tangible and intangible.  Strategy demands the intelligent interaction and integration of all the firm’s significant resources to achieve goals.

It aligns means with ends while reserving some resources for rainy days.  It is the link between resources and goals, the scheme for how to make one produce the other.  The alignment, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Strategy may not be about asking “who” and “why.”  The question that haunts every strategy may be “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 means and ends.

Strategy, according to this model, is a force multiplier when it provides value added to resources.  This perspective can accommodate the various schools of strategic thought and plausible arguments about various definitions and their imperial claims that they are valid for all times and places.  This vantage point may provide a unifying perspective among various strategies, a conceptual center of gravity covering competitive activities.  All the relevant resources come together to create a center of gravity to bring to bear on achieving the goal.

Again, in this context, it is not the strategist’s job to select goals, but he or she is obliged to contribute to the setting of goals by advising what is possible based on resources.  Strategy frequently fails when the resources prove insufficient to achieve the goals.  This can happen because the wrong resources are in play or because the ends are too ambitious.

The strategy adopted may frequently be dictated by the availability of resources rather than by desired goals.  Executives quickly come to understand that strategy is unavoidably and inevitably about trade-offs. Making trade-offs means accepting limits—saying no to some customers, for example, so that you can better serve others.

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