Various thinkers have shaped my view of strategy over the years. In this post, I share the wisdom and insight of three strategists who helped these thoughts evolve and have pushed me further along in understanding – Napoleon Bonaparte, 19th Century Prussian Army Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the American diplomat, educator, and author Harlan Cleveland.
The Art of Strategy
Attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte is the phrase that strategy is “the art of bringing one’s forces to bear on the decisive point.” The first message is that it’s an art. Yes, it’s supported by lots of science and data, but in the end, it’s a judgment call. It’s got to look and feel right.
Next, we need to understand the decisive point. This can be reflected in our answer to questions like, “What do we really mean by ‘success’?” and “What do we need to do really well to be successful?” and “What’s our source of sustainable advantage in the marketplace?”
Then we need to figure out how best to bring all of our resources to bear on the effective execution of the strategy – talent, technology, culture, capital, whatever.
For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction
Von Moltke gave me the phrase, “Strategy is good only until first contact with the enemy.” This is especially true in today’s world. The implications are that we need to ensure we have rich and timely feedback to tell us how we’re doing, so we can adapt our approach to better match the evolving conditions, swiftly and surely. This also means, of course, that we need to be as clear and specific as possible with our strategic execution plans so we can adjust them – without a plan, there’s nothing to adjust.
Adjust, Adapt, Survive and Thrive
In Cleveland’s 1972 book, The Future Executive, he describes strategy as “[continuous] improvisation on a general sense of direction.” This takes von Moltke to the next step of thoughtfully and decisively adjusting the plans, understanding that they, too, will be “conditional.”
These strategists and many others have added to and enriched my understanding of strategy. Strategy must be supported by empirical, “sound” data, and at the same time, it must also be intuitive and flexible. It must be a guide while being amenable to change and adaptation. Strategy is not a rope that binds; rather it is one that supports us in our climb.
Bob McCulloch is a Co-founder and Principal with Strategic Retreats. He is a strategic advisor and executive coach to senior leaders and their teams. His clients represent companies across a wide array of industries as well as all levels of government and several not-for-profit organizations and associations.