What Is Strategy?

What is strategy? I’ve found that it’s a poisoned word. And as a result, many smart people are dismissive or uninterested in the entire field of strategy.

When I dig deeper, I find that people care about making wise decisions – in both their personal and professional lives. And they believe that there are good and bad strategies for accomplishing specific objectives, especially in their domain of expertise.

If we’re talking about the strategy to solve problem X or achieve goal Y, I find that people are really engaged. For example, I could ask:

What’s your strategy to get a promotion at work?
…to quit your job and start a company?
What’s your strategy for closing this client?
…to win this chess game?
What’s your strategy to live a happy life?
What’s Apple’s strategy to sell more watches?

Whenever I ask questions like these, I immediately jump into an interesting conversation. But “what’s your strategy” is not the same as “what is strategy?”

Defining Strategy

While I really enjoy thinking about these context-specific strategies, I also want to explore the broader field of strategy. But I kept coming up against this belief that strategy is exclusively domain-specific, that it can’t be generalized at all. It’s taken me a while to figure this out, but I think a big part of the issue is that we’re lacking the vocabulary to adequately discuss strategy.

It’s fairly easy to talk about “a strategy” but “strategy” is somehow more difficult to discuss. I’ve spent some time looking for good definitions for strategy, looking at the etymology of the word, and re-reading some of the best articles on strategy, and while I found value in many places I looked, I never felt that anyone had dealt with this issue well.

In my opinion, Michael Porter came the closest in his famous article “What is Strategy?” by attempting to answer the question posed in the title of his article in three different ways:

– Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.
– Strategy is making trade-offs in competing.
– And finally, Strategy is creating fit among a company’s activities.

But I found each of these to be descriptions rather than a definition of strategy.

What is Strategy?

So, standing on the shoulders of giants, here are the definitions I’ve come up with:

Strategy is the process of creating a set of well-aligned activities with the aim of occupying a valuable position within a competitive landscape.

A strategy is a set of well-aligned activities with the aim of occupying a valuable position within a competitive landscape.

A tactic is an activity that, when combined with other well-aligned activities, results in a valuable position within a competitive landscape.

The first definition – strategy as a process – really gets at something new. A process can be unpacked, taken apart, put back together in interesting ways, and maybe even generalized to some degree.

So this is what I intend to discuss here: strategies for solving specific challenges but also the process of creating those strategies. Because, in all of my conversations with people, we all agree that taking the time to create a strategy is merited in any important competition or situation where resources are scarce.

Finally, it’s time to take back the word strategy. It has real & powerful meaning and the careful application of strategy can have life-changing results.

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