Nobody really knows what strategy is. The concept of the ‘bigger picture’ seems to be broadly understood among practitioners in the profession of arms, yet a single definition for ‘strategy’ still eludes us. Ask 100 people to define it and you’ll likely receive 100 different answers. Each may be right, but none would be complete. Strategy is an idea. It is a concept. It is a thought experiment that exists only in our minds. It is non-tangible—you can’t see it or touch it. This raises the question; does strategy even exist?
‘Strategy’ is often used as a synonym for ‘plan’. Usually this is due to editorial carelessness, but sometimes its use is deliberate, even malicious. Purists hate it. They are quick to point out the differences between the two terms. From the perspective of a casual observer, I think it all makes sense… roughly. We get what they mean. Besides, ‘strategy’ sounds fancier and more eloquent than a boring old ‘plan’. Right?
If military professionals are to truly contribute to the strategic discussion, then surely it’s worth considering the concept and definition of strategy in more detail than the casual observer. Military strategists, or at the very least those who aspire to be military strategists, ought to understand the breadth, depth, and context of their craft.
Finding a definition for ‘strategy’ is the subject of prolonged and at times pedantic academic debate. In my experience, it is far easier to criticise definitions provided by others than it is to propose and defend one’s own.
Describing strategy is akin to the story of the three blind people who are asked to describe an elephant. Each person bases their description on their individual perspective. In the story, one person feels the sharp features of the tusk and says the elephant is like a spear. Another feels the strong flat side and says the elephant is like a wall. For another, the wriggling trunk feels more like a snake. In every case, they are each correct in their individual descriptions, but totally wrong in their conclusion as a whole.
Before revealing my definition of strategy, let us first examine a few definitions from a diverse range of sources. Some definitions pertain to business strategy, some to military strategy, and some to grand strategy. But all maintain a similar theme and tone.
- Brands. “Grand strategy is the intellectual architecture that lends structure to foreign policy; it is the logic that helps states navigate a complex and dangerous world”.
- Cavanaugh. “Strategy is the purposeful orientation toward success in a complex, competitive conflict”.
- Clausewitz. “Strategy [is] the use of engagements for the object of war”.
- Freedman. “Strategy is the art of creating power”.
- Google (sorry I just had to). “A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim” and “the art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle”.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war”.
- Murray and Grimsley. “Strategy is a process, a constant adaptation to the shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where chance, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominate”.
- Turner. “Business strategy consists of the defined organization vision, processes, and resources that form the basis of successful competition within both current and future marketplaces”.
- Watkins. “A strategy is a set of guiding principles that, when communicated and adopted in the organization, generates a desired pattern of decision making”.
Each of these definitions contain a thread of logic. They are all right, but they are all wrong. Finding a balance between ambiguity and specificity is important. If the definition is too theoretical and abstract, then we lose real-world utility. If it is too specific, then we lose sight of the broader perspective.
Given that strategy is an abstract idea, I tend to side with the theoretical definitions rather than the specific ones. Rather than searching for a panacea, I propose that my definition simply adds to the discussion and offers a different, albeit simple, perspective for readers to ponder.
Strategy is shaping chaos.
Shaping is an art not a science. It implies one is purposely and deliberately seeking change in a competitive and contested environment. All stakeholders are simultaneously shaping to seek a competitive advantage for their side. But that advantage does not need to be immediate—it could be a long-term advantage at the expense of a short-term one. Shaping includes kinetic and non-kinetic actions. It includes messaging, posturing, and action across the spectrum of conflict, which include cooperation, competition, and war. Shaping involves thinking, planning, and action.
Chaos. Both the environment and the situation are in a constant state of flux. Nothing in the strategic domain is static. There is an inevitable and continuous interaction between all stakeholders. Adding complexity to the chaos we see deliberate actions, as well as in-action, unintended consequences, and even accidents and luck. Chaos is friction and can never be controlled in its entirety.
Strategists often suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect, whereby those who are relatively new to the field feel confident in their understanding of strategy, but those with more experience understand its complexity. Understanding that strategy can’t be easily defined might be the first step on the road to wisdom.
Military professionals ought to consider a diverse range of definitions in order to expand our diversity of thought and collective understanding of strategy. In part two of this series, I will publish a collection of definitions submitted to Chesterfield Strategy, along with some reflections and analysis. I look forward to hearing from you on Twitter to @ChesterfieldStr, Facebook @ChesterfieldStrategy or email your submissions to email@example.com. #DefineStrategy
 Brands, H., 2014. What Good Is Grand Strategy?. Cornell University Press.
 Clausewitz, C., 2008. On war. Princeton University Press.
 Freedman, L., 2008. Strategic studies and the problem of power (pp. 32-43). Routledge.
 Murray, W. and Grimsley, M., 1994. On strategy. The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, pp.134-136.