#DEFINESTRATEGY. The Big Idea

In this #DefineStrategy submission, Rex Harrison provides a simple answer speaks to some of the common frustrations about the use and over-use of the term.

“Strategy is a big idea with a few general thoughts of how to achieve that idea”

Rex Harrison

To answer the exam question, I think of strategy as a ‘big idea with a few general thoughts of how to achieve that idea’. In many ways this is merely a loose application of the ‘ends, ways, means’ construct. However, I find that this construct often gets bogged down in a room full of army majors arguing whether their soapbox issue is an end, way or means – as if by locking in a concrete definition at each level will provide the clarity of thought required to solve the problem.

What the more concrete approach does is create a nice flowchart process for developing excellent staff papers and campaign plans. What it does not do is allow these excellent staff papers enough flexibility to adapt to the feedback loop of the environment and the competition.

It also provides sufficient ambiguity to allow a leader to claim that whatever the outcome, it aligned with their broad strategy! I recognise that saying this I am undermining decades of my actions in the military, but perhaps there is something to be said for such an approach. Confidence in one’s leaders is critical – perhaps too hide-bound definitions risk us presenting an expectation of certainty, when life is anything but.

Beyond the exam question, if I could take a contrarian position, I think there is equal utility in looking at what strategy is not. What is left in the empty space in between what it is not, is strategy!

Strategy is often used as a synonym for ‘plan’. But it is more often used as an adjective indicating that the object is somehow larger, more important or possessing of greater importance. So a ‘business plan’ becomes ‘strategic’, in so far as it is a ‘VERY IMPORTANT business plan’.

Let’s be honest, the vast majority of military units have no need of a strategy or strategic plan – at least not one held and managed at the unit level. Those decisions have been made long ago when the unit was established, equipped and given its purpose in life. In business terms, an organisation’s strategy is how to maximise the returns from the available resources, within the environment in which it operates. By the time a commanding officer decides to write a strategy for their unit, they can no more change the purpose of their unit than stop the rotation of the earth. 

That is not to say that strategy is irrelevant to them – quite the contrary. They need to understand intimately the idea that they are working towards. They just also need to acknowledge that they don’t have much of a role in shaping the strategy, just implementing it. What they can do is understand the strategy that has been set for their unit, and implement plans that best support it.

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