Strategy is as strategy does

When I was in undergrad, I took an analytical writing course that focused on war and conflict. It was an odd mix: though we used essays and articles related to war as prompts, and the instructor was from the international relations department, our feedback and grades were based more on writing ability than on content knowledge.

Even still, that course was my first introduction to the concept of strategy. Strategy has long been tied to the military and international relations, and the metaphors of strategy remain closely linked to the metaphors of war. In writing for that class, I quickly learned that strategy provided a useful analytical category for understanding why certain actors behaved the way they did—even if a strategy wasn’t explicitly stated, but rather inferred from how events unfolded. I also learned how easy it is to abuse and misuse that analytical category by shuffling tactics, plans, and other tools into the same deck.

Of course, strategy has applications beyond war and conflict. We can talk about and analyze strategy in business, sports, politics, and even personal life. In my first few jobs after school, I got an understanding of the practice of strategy. In learning to make it a practical concept, I refined my understanding of what it is.

One of my early mentors described it this way:

Our strategy is our theory for why we’re going to win.

She was describing the strategy of a political campaign. Press conferences, door knocking, advertisements—these aren’t strategy. They’re tactics. The strategy is what ties them together: a hypothesis that says doing all of these things will lead to a new bill being passed, a vote going our way, a campaign victory. Like any hypothesis, ours was crafted from existing data and made predictions for the future. The campaign was its test.

I find this description of strategy useful because it prompts you to lift above the day-to-day. Abstract a bit from the specific activities and force yourself to articulate why these will lead to the outcome you’re trying to achieve. Interrogate your theory, put it up for debate, defend it and refine it.

Somewhere along reading about strategy, it was inevitable that I would come across Sun Tzu’s Art of War—a book that has long influenced military as well as business strategy. One of the classic quotes:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

In other words: If you’re going to get one of them right, have the right strategy. It ensures that your efforts move you in the right direction, rather than just making a bunch of distracting fuss and going nowhere.

Much more recently, I came across a third great characterization of strategy. Writing on the Zenpundit blog, Lynn Rees points out that:

— strategy deals with stocks and flows
— tactics deals with ends and means

I love this characterization for how it points to the inherent systems nature of strategy. The world is too complex to do strategy without systems thinking. Look at the relevant stocks in the world (current demographics, dominant public opinions, cultural norms) and the flows (fertility/death rates and migration, popular media consumption, differences of opinion by age group). These are the states of the world—both static stocks and dynamic flows—that your strategy grapples with. How you influence these is through targeted means that aim for particular ends—i.e. tactics.

But my favorite description of strategy might be the Forrest Gump version:

Strategy is as strategy does.

The analytical function of strategy is to provide a link between the things we want to achieve (goals) and the things we actually do (tactics). We have a decent grasp on both those things. Goals, at least for a social good organization, are often tied closely to our personal values and sense of identity. We feel them deeply, and it’s why we got into this work. Tactics, on the other end, manifest in our everyday activity. We actually do tactics and we see tactics.

Somewhere connecting those two, and more abstract than either, is our strategy. No wonder it’s so easy to get away without a clearly articulated strategy: most of the time, we don’t even notice it’s missing. Often, it’s there in the background, implicit but unstated.

We make it explicit at critical junctures, when it’s contested, or when it’s clearly failing. We would do well to interrogate it more often, cutting through the noise to keep us moving toward systemic change.