Strategising Strategic Strategy

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1872)

I don’t, unfortunately, own the rights to the word ‘strategy’. I’d like to define it my way*, but I don’t have the authority, and over the years writers and researchers in management have come up with countless definitions of their own. So this isn’t a rant about how my definition is best.

On the other hand, the word has become so ubiquitously over-used in corporate life that it seems to me to be possible to plead for greater clarity not (necessarily) from a position of etymological authority, but from sheer pragmatism – just to make the word useful again.

The adjective form, ‘strategic’, is particularly egregious in this regard. In almost all cases, the word can be dropped altogether with no loss of comprehension. ‘Strategic plan’ – plan; ‘Strategic initiative’ – initiative; and so on. Feel free to come up with your own examples. Where the context does seem to require a bit more oomph (“this isn’t just any old plan, you know”), ‘strategic’ is normally just used as a synonym for ‘important’.

‘Strategy’ itself is typically used as a synonym for ‘plan’ or ‘direction’ (making it possible, among other things, to talk about a ‘strategic strategy’ with a perfectly straight face)**.

The word  is borrowed from the military of course (actually, from the Ancient Greek military: strategoi were classical-age, high-ranking Athenian generals). Presumably it was pulled into the business world to fulfill an unmet linguistic need, not just to create confusion and ambiguity when referring to a plan.

Now I’ve seen it said that the crucial distinction is that strategy is long-term in nature. I think this is potentially unhelpful. To the extent that continuity of the business is likely to be intrinsic to any reasonable commercial objective, then, yes, strategy must look beyond the immediate, day-to-day business. But that shouldn’t mean that a strategic action, whatever that is, must take a long time to execute, and it shouldn’t mean that strategy does not encompass those day-to-day activities***.

In order to have any real, independent value, and to pay homage to its military origins, the word must surely imply that a satisfactory outcome is being sought in a contested environment. What need would the military have for a strategy in the absence of adversaries?

We can have a plan to install some new ducting, and we can have a plan to grow market share, but it’s only a strategy if it deals explicitly with getting something done while other players are also active in ways that may directly or indirectly frustrate our efforts. Since, as Peter Drucker put it, the purpose of a business is to create a customer, it follows that a strategy in the business world is a special kind of plan or scheme – one which addresses competitors who are basically trying to do the same thing.

No competition, no strategy. Otherwise, really, what’s the point of the word at all?

If we accept this premise, then a lot of what passes for strategy in organisations actually becomes something else. You can call it strategy if you like – my point is that communication would potentially be clearer and less ambiguous if you didn’t.


* ‘Identification and exploitation of sources of competitive advantage’, if you must know

** You can laugh if you like, but my local hospital has banned the word ‘disabled’ and replaced it with ‘accessible’, so as well as ‘accessible toilets’, we now have ‘accessible access’ signs all over the place.

*** Some have even claimed that today’s pace of change means that the idea of strategy is redundant, that instead an enterprise needs to maintain flexibility and accumulate learning. But this is a strategy, of course.