Last year, a colleague held an informal poll of team members. “What is strategy?” she asked. For every person asked, she got a different answer. They weren’t wrong. The exercise showed how the idea of strategy can take many forms.
This is because strategy can apply to almost anything. It can help you fight a land war in Asia. It can help you go camping. Here are four writers who explain strategy.
Ensuring your ends match your means is the key to successful strategy according to John Lewis Gaddis in On Grand Strategy. To do this, strategists must have a figurative or literal compass. By knowing their direction, strategists can still maintain their heading in the face of obstacles (rivers and mountains or a long weekend road closure).
To do this, strategists must hold opposites in their head at the same time. On one hand, they have grand ambitions (invading a continent or setting up the tent before nightfall). On the other hand, they must know the limits to achieving that ambition (it’s winter in Russia or the kid is going to get car sick). Balancing this creates good strategy.
Gaddis writes, strategists must have enough humility to understand these limits. Those who lack this humility have had their continental armies defeated or end up not having enough time to roast marshmallows.
Similarly, strategy is a deliberate, outcome-oriented approach which requires a self-awareness of why an organization does what it does, according to Bernard Gauthier in Strategic Communication in Canada. He writes that strategy is dynamic, meaning that it evolves as the environment evolves. It is informed, meaning it’s based on research. It is also consistent, meaning that the strategic approach should guide all communications channels and tactics.
Dwayne Spradlin’s 2012 HBR article states that, despite trying, many initiatives don’t fit with an organization’s strategy. Organizations are failing to define the problem they’re solving for. To do this better, strategists must ask more questions. Once that happens, they’re in a position to develop a strategy. Again, self-awareness features prominently here.
This quotation now makes a lot more sense:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”Sun Tzu
This is why so many professional service firms are focused on defining problems. Maister et al. in The Trusted Advisor, write that successful advisors spend their time focused on defining problems with clients before they jump to solutions — even if they’re itching to provide the answer to what appears to be an obvious problem.
As a result, communications firms often offer things like content and landscape audits prior to tackling a client’s original ask: they need to build an understanding of what the battlefield looks like first. Through this, they build trust with those who are seeking their guidance and gain the awareness needed to develop strategy.
So, one of the first steps in strategy development is knowing yourself and your enemy (or audience, or kid you take camping, or whatever).