#DEFINESTRATEGY. A narrative that guides

In this #DefineStrategy submission, Jarrod Brook offers his thoughts on how best to do strategy, as well as how best to articulate it.

“Strategy is ultimately a narrative that guides our decision making and the execution of campaigns”

Jarrod Brook

Defining strategy is a very intimidating question, and I am not sure I am as steeped in strategic thought as other may be, but as a professional military officer this is a topic everyone should have an opinion on. 

Defining strategy. The point made by The Chesterfield Colonel in his original article is spot on – no one know what strategy is or how to define. Having said that though, every definition or think piece, gets us a little bit closer to an understanding that is a little more accurate than the last. The elephant analogy is a good one, but maybe it is a little more like pi – everyone can get to 3.14 and then they disappear down the rabbit hole of infinite decimal places! Declaring my rounds upfront, everything that follows is framed against military strategy, rather than the ‘everything to everyone’ version of strategy.

When the question was first posed, my reflex response was ‘ends-ways-means‘. Colin S. Gray has developed a general definition that basically turns that into a proper sentence. In many ways, I like this as a start point, but eventually it becomes trite. I am not sure I’ve seen any strategic document use this framework because rarely are problems so clear cut that you can apply a linear thinking process to them. I am not sure strategy is strictly about managing chaos, but it definitely occupies a place where there aren’t clear answers.

If there is every a place where clear answers don’t exists, then that place is where policy is developed. The degree of difficulty only increases when policy then needs to translate into tactical action. The idea that strategy is the bridge between policy, set by the government, and military operations, actions and activities is probably the idea I find most appealing. The reason I find this framing compelling is that it provides some coherence and reason to the use of violence/war. Without policy, anything else is just a bare-knuckled brawl. As a military officer, we can sometime get fascinated with either tactical or operational mastery as if that is a pursuit conducted in wonderful isolation. Probably some of the worst mistakes we’ve made are because of this view. Strategy provides focus and context by establishing the link between policy and the use of violence.

How to do ‘strategy’. I suspect that strategy is a bit like art: I know it when I see it. I’m not sure I can provide an all encompassing idea of what strategy actually is, but I think that it should possess a few key features. To my mind, the critical elements of strategy are the choices that we make based on the resources at hand. Those choices are shaped by government policy – the form of objectives or outcomes – and the nature of the threat or adversary. Those choices have a natural limitation, which is imposed our resources to hand. ‘Resources’ isn’t to mean money or finances alone. I would think of it in a broader sense to encompass military forces, geography, demographics, morale/will – you could expand it across all the elements of DIME. The point is meaningful strategy is about the quality of the choices we make to achieve our objectives with the resources we have at hand. Australia could choose to pursue strategies fit for a great power but would quickly culminate due to lack of strategic weight across DIME – so we need to be judicious in the choices we have.

I find the First World War a compelling example of choices. Britain quickly decides on a blockade of Germany. Britain is a maritime and trading power, and Germany is located in central Europe with limited abilities to project its own maritime power. Britain’s advantages – built over time, but also with the luck of geography – prove to be successful. Germany, attempting a similar approach with unrestricted submarine warfare proves unsustainable for almost the same reasons – resources and geography. Same strategic choices (sort of) but different outcomes based on resources to hand.

How to ‘articulate’ strategy. I think this is the most interesting part and that is that once the choices are made and the resources allocated, how does one articulate strategy? I’m attracted to the idea that strategy is ultimately a narrative that guides our decisions making and the execution of campaigns. The narrative provides the enduring logic to how we conduct operations in the pursuit of policy outcomes. ‘Germany First’, in my mind, is a strategy in narrative form. I don’t want to sound trite though, there’s a lot of thinking and background work that goes into a statement as simple as that. At the same time, it’s quite powerful in how campaigns and operations were guided (and UK foreign policy!).

Strategy as a ‘prefix’. Last, my sense is that strategy as a prefix only serves to confuse matters, rather than clarify things. Collectively we need to come to grips with either ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic’ being used as a prefix. We have strategic commitments, strategic plans, strategic policy, strategic direct and the list goes on. Are these strategies, places where strategy is made or is just colloquialism for organisations that work in a central headquarters? It’s probably all of the above in fairness, but clarity is important – I’m not convinced having strategy in a name necessarily means your product is strategy.

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