What’s good strategy, anyway?

Navigating through the ‘fog of war’ isn’t easy. Ask any business leader. It’s a battlefield out there, and like soldiers at the front, executives are constantly seeking better ways to chart a course through a dangerously shifting competitive landscape toward victory.

The man who coined the term ‘fog of war’ knew all about complexity. “Three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based on are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent,” wrote Prussian military analyst, Carl von Clausewitz. “The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”  Decades later, another Prussian soldier, Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard Graf von Moltke, is credited with the of-quoted phrase, ”No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. Moltke believed, it seems, that strategy should be flexible. “Strategy is a system of expedients,” he’s quoted as saying in Government and the War. “It is more than science, it is the translation of science into practical life, the development of an original leading thought in accordance with the ever-changing circumstances.”

In the centuries since those Prussians made their mark, countless executive teams have pursued what researcher Richard Rumelt calls bad strategy, or worse. “The gap between good strategy and the jumble of things people label as ‘strategy’ has grown over the years,” Rumelt writes in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. “A good strategy does more than urge us forward toward a goal or vision. A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them.”

Rumelt argues that good strategy remains the exception rather than the rule. “More and more organisational leaders say they have a strategy, but they do not. Instead, they espouse what I call bad strategy. Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems. It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.”

Strategy has become a corporate cliché too often confused with tactics, which muddies important business decisions about the allocation of focus, energy and resources. The implications for innovation initiatives are immense. A Strategy& survey of nearly 3,000 executives last year highlighted the sense of frustration. “Half of the executives consider setting a clear and differentiating strategy a significant challenge,” the survey found. “In fact, most executives (54 per cent) do not feel their company’s strategy will lead to success.”

The answer, says Rumelt, is to re-engage discussions about strategy (the big picture) with action (execution). “A good strategy includes a set of coherent actions,” he says. “They are not ‘implementation’ details; they are the punch in the strategy. A strategy that fails to define a variety of plausible and feasible immediate actions is missing a critical component.”

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