Strategy is clouded by a number of persistent myths. As argued in a recent previous article, there are no less than ten of them. These myths are a barrier towards progress. Therefore, in this article and the next nine in this series, my aim is to articulate and break them one by one. Let me start with Myth #1: Strategy Is About War.
Many books on strategy start with informing you about the origins of the term strategy. As they will tell you, the word strategy is a derivation and combination of the greek words strategos (general), strategia (office of a general), stratos (army), and agein (to lead). Accordingly, strategy is often defined as ‘the art of a general’.
Then these books often continue discussing the history of the field referring to the works of influential generals, most often Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ (around 500 B.C.) and Von Clausewitz’s ‘On war’ (1832). Accordingly, the parallel between strategy and warfare is drawn, arguing that strategy is primarily about outsmarting and beating the enemy—the competition.
Why It Is Wrong
While strategy certainly has its role in warfare, and while there is a lot of wisdom in military works about strategy which is applicable in today’s organizations, the warfare connotation of the word strategy is misleading for five reasons.
- Words have more than one meaning. The very fact that the word strategy is used in business as well as in the military, doesn’t mean they mean the same. Words change in meaning. Take the word “awful”. Long ago it used to mean “full of awe”, which is about the opposite of what it means today. Furthermore, the meaning of words differs between contexts. The word “mouse”, for example (hopefully) means something different in the office as on the country-side. The same for strategy. For reasons explained below, even though business strategy and warfare strategy both use the word strategy, they may have not so much to do with each other.
- There is no historical connection. There is no continuous historical line from strategy in warfare to business strategy. Business strategy has a very specific, about 140-year history that is primarily shaped by business schools like Wharton and Harvard, consultancy firms like McKinsey and BCG, CEOs of large firms such as Dupont and General Motors and foundations like the Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller foundations. And the interesting thing is that the term strategy wasn’t even used in business before the 1960s and not common before the 1970s. Like the first course at Harvard, the field was called “business policy” and the first academic journal was (and still is) called “Long Range Planning”. The term strategy was imported much later and the field was not relabelled “strategy” until 1979.
- Business is rarely about warfare. Even though it is often suggested that business is all about being in war with the competition, this is only so in a small fraction of cases. Yes, battles between Coca Cola and Pepsi, between Ryanair and easyJet and between Apple and Samsung may resemble war and are interesting to remember and analyze. But for the large majority of organizations on this planet, business is not about war or killing the competition. It is about making organizations survive and prosper through creating distinct added value for customers while operating in a challenging environment.
- Organizations depend on competitors. In warfare, the ultimate purpose of strategy is to destroy the fighting power of the enemy. Von Clausewitz allows no doubt about that when he argues that “War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.” Unlike in warfare, however, having a successful organization generally does not require others to fail. Oftentimes you even need strong competitors since your organization depends on them, for example to position yourself against them in the market, to attract customers, to share resources, or to create and maintain a market in the first place. This is why we have shopping centers, regions such as Silicon Valley where competitors cluster together and industry associations which represent and are funded by competing organizations.
- Military strategy is not primarily about warfare. Of course, military strategy is about warfare. But not first and foremost. The primary point of military strategy is to avoid war, to create, keep and protect peace. Again we can draw from Von Clausewitz when he calls war “politics by other means”. It starts with politics and only in exceptional cases this leads to war. So, even when we would take military strategy as starting point for business strategy, it doesn’t follow that warfare is the right or even a useful metaphor.
If not warfare, what is the core of strategy then? Of course, there are numerous possible answers to this question. And we only have to look at the hundreds of definitions of strategy to see there is nothing close to agreement about this. But if we stay as close as possible to the theme of warfare and the history of strategy, Lawrence Freedman provides a good definition in his comprehensive and masterful book “Strategy: A History“. He defines strategy as “the art of creating power”. Power here doesn’t refer so much to having power over others. It is power as potential, as in the ability to do stuff and to make that we control our own lives rather than that others are doing it. I’d like to think that is what strategy is about.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
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