As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence on July 4th,, it can be a time to reflect on origins. While the drivers of this independence are grounded in characteristics such as courage, ambition, and spirit, strategy also played a role in the formation of our United States of America. While political and military strategy were instrumental in 1776, to understand the origin of strategy we must travel back further in time.

Strategy’s Beginning

Strategy sprung from the need for people to defeat their enemies. The first treatises that discuss strategy are from the Chinese during the period of 400 – 200 B.C. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written in 400 B.C. has received critical acclaim as the best work on military strategy, including those that have followed it centuries later. However, unlike the theoretical treatises that followed, the Chinese works took the form of narratives, including poems and prose accounts. An example of this prose form of strategy can be seen in the poem by Lao Tzu, the father of Tao-ism:

Once grasp the great form without a form

and you will roam where you will

with no evil to fear,

calm, peaceful, at ease.

The hub of the wheel runs upon the axle.

In a jar, it is the hole that holds water.

So advantage is had

from whatever there is;

but usefulness rises

from whatever is not.

While at first glance it may be difficult to identify an element of strategy, a key principle found here is the importance of “not,” as business strategy demands trade-offs—choosing your “not’s.” What products will we not offer? What customers will we choose not to serve? etc.

The term “strategy” is derived indirectly from the Classic and Byzantine (330 A.D.) Greek “strategos,” which means “general.”  While the term is credited to the Greeks, no Greek ever used the word. The Greek equivalent for the modern word “strategy” would have been “strategike episteme” or (general’s knowledge) “strategon sophia” (general’s wisdom). One of the most famous Latin works in the area of military strategy is written by Frontius and has the Greek title of Strategemata. Strategemata describes a compilation of strategema, or “strategems,” which are literally “tricks of war.” The Roman historians also introduced the term “strategia” to refer to territories under control of a strategus, a military commander in ancient Athens and a member of the Council of War.

The word strategy retained this narrow, geographic meaning until Count Guibert, a French military thinker, introduced the term “La Strategique” in 1799, in the sense that is understood today. Consequently, neither the military community before Count Guibert nor the business community before H. Igor Ansoff (Corporate Strategy, 1965), could see the strategic element in their domains clearly enough to give it a name.

Perhaps the military figure with the most impact on strategy is Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). Clausewitz was a Prussian General whose work entitled, On War, focused on two questions: What is war, and what purpose does it serve? The Prussian General viewed war as a duel between two independent minds. Clausewitz’ key to strategy was to always be strong, first overall and then at the decisive point. The business parallel is the need for disciplined focus that comes from making strategic trade-offs. As Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay proclaimed, “Our strategy is as much the art of exclusion as it is the art of inclusion.”

Strategy and Tactics

The complementary nature of strategy and tactics has defined their intertwined existence. In the military realm, tactics teach the use of armed forces in engagements, while strategy teaches the use of engagements to achieve the objectives of the war. Just as the term “strategy” originated with the Greeks, so too did the term “tactics.” The original meaning of “tactics” is “order”—literally the “ordering of formations on the battlefield.” However, the current use of “strategic” and “tactical” stems from World War II.

“Strategic” is associated with long-range aircraft and missiles while “tactical” has referred to shorter-range aircraft and missiles. The term “strategic” then became associated with the completely incidental quality of long range, which bombers might need to attack industrial targets in some geographic areas. In turn, that caused ‘tactical’ to take on the aura of short range. From a business perspective, a more accurate and useful distinction than time for strategy and tactics is the following: Strategy is how generally to achieve a goal while tactics are how specifically to achieve a goal.

Strategy and War

Strategy originated from the necessity of peoples to defeat their enemies. Without enemies, the need for military strategy is non-existent. Keniche Ohmae, acclaimed Japanese business strategist and author of The Mind of the Strategist, has said that the sole purpose of strategy is to enable a company to gain, as efficiently as possible, a sustainable edge over its competitors. When no competition exists, there is no need to strategize. In business, the activities executed in an environment featuring a lack of competition are categorized as operational.

Five levels of military strategy have been developed for understanding the aspects of  warfare that need to be addressed by a commander and his forces. The five levels are:

  1. Technical: weapon interaction
  2. Tactical: forces directly opposed fight one another; nature of terrain is pivotal
  3. Operational: struggle of minds; combat encounters
  4. Theater: relates military strength to territorial space; the satellite view
  5. Grand: confluence of interactions that flow up and down the levels of strategy to determine outcomes

These five levels give military personnel a common framework of understanding in discussing their goals, objectives, and means of attainment. While it’s important to develop plans to be effective at each level, a realization that successful military strategy depends on the coalescing of thought and activity at each level is the true key to military victory.

In business, research has shown that not having a strategy process and framework to communicate it is the most common route to business failure, accounting for 80 percent of bankruptcies. Once the strategy process and framework are in place, they must then be cascaded throughout the levels and functions of a company to ensure everyone is working towards the same goals.

Paradox of Strategy

There are very few areas where the use of paradox is as valuable as it is in military strategy. A bad road is good. A rocky shore is a safe place to land. A nighttime attack presents the best opportunity for victory. Paradoxes abound in the realm of military strategy. Very often, the much sought after element of surprise is shrouded in paradox. A bad road that is difficult to traverse may be the best choice because the enemy least expects an attack from that avenue. A rocky shore is a safe place to land troops because the enemy will have the fewest number of troops available to defend it. A nighttime attack may be the riskiest for the attacker but the cover of darkness allows the enemy to be taken by surprise.

Paradox in business strategy offers some interesting parallels. The easiest channel to reach a customer is often the most crowded, and therefore may not be as effective. The most difficult and complex sales are often the most intrinsically and financially rewarding because of the differentiation and grit required to achieve them. A challenging customer may in the long run prove to be highly valuable because of new processes or services you’re forced to create to serve them.

Embracing Uncertainty

The development of strategy requires the courage to accept uncertainty. As the French have said, strategy is the art of conducting war not by means of coup d’oeil (glance or look) from behind a horse’s ears, not in an office on a map. Strategists must accept that they will not have all of the information and not see the spectrum of events, yet be committed to creating and implementing the strategy. In business, a lack of data is often the culprit for not developing or committing to a new strategy. Moving forward with determination will not fill the gap left by a lack of data but it’s preferred to the remaining option of sitting in the middle of the highway waiting to become your competitor’s road kill.

Strategy’s military roots have had a decided impact on the adoption and adaptation of the concept in the business arena. Dating back to the Chinese poems and narratives in the period of 400 – 200 B.C., strategy has been an important determinant of the shaping of the world’s political, sociological and commercial landscape. The distinction between strategy and tactics, the comprehension of the paradoxes of strategy and the inherent uncertainty of strategy all add to the military arena’s unmistakable impact on the concept of strategy as we know it today.

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