What is strategy?
It’s your game plan
Strategy conjures many mental images. We imagine battles, generals and schemers. Board games like chess also come to mind. But what is strategy? Playing a computer game connected the dots for me, in a practical sense.
Definitions can confuse
We experience and execute ‘strategy’ in our personal and professional lives. We may have a game plan to beat the opposition on a playing field. We may have a strategy to answer exam questions. Strategy can support planned action or indeed even inaction. In politics for example, politicians can maintain a selective silence on issues which are not beneficial to take up.
In the corporate world, analyzing and responding to competitive and market challenges underpins survival. This can take the form of marketing ‘strategies’ e,g. cheap razor/expensive blade etc., or be elaborated via an Operating Model. In fact, tools like BCG matrix, SWOT/PESTLE analyses, Porter’s 5 Forces etc., have become popular staples in strategy planning.
But just when we start to base our idea of strategy around these frameworks, we see a lot of other variants that ostensibly depict strategy but in reality, fall short. A common error is to conflate strategy with higher level of abstraction or inspirational phrases. Other times, I’ve seen a set of keywords put around a fancy diagram and declared as "strategy”. Frequently, strategy is seen as something distinct from execution. Strategic thinking is done by an elite team while execution (“detail”) is left for lowly minnio…, I mean, direct reports to implement.
So where does the truth lie? What is the real definition?
Let’s turn to the OED, which defines strategy as:
A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.
This is a good generic definition. But is there more to strategy than just being a plan?
The answer to this question began to form during the course of playing a computer game.
Real examples can clarify
I got first hand experience of strategy playing Soccer Stars on Miniclip. It is two-player real time game. Each side has 5 discs (players) who need to ‘shoot’ a ball into the opponents goal. Each disc can move in any direction, at any angle (including rebounds). It’s a popular game, rated 4.4/5 with over 50 million downloads on Android Play Store. The game is simple to grasp yet gives our strategic muscles a thorough multi-faculty workout.
I compare my theoretical understanding of strategy with practical insights gained from the game and try to define strategy progressively as a set of statements, as I’ve experienced it through this game.
Strategy is perspective
In the game, there are a core set of rules (e.g. no scoring on kickoff). Everything else is open to creativity. At novice level, we stick to basic moves. After that, often learning from opponent’s moves, our repertoire of shots increases. As we gain experience, we start to become more creative in our tactics, realizing progressively, how broad our scope of action is. Strategy formulation is a broad canvas where almost all limits (assuming the intention of operating within legal limits) are open to imagination.
Imagination anchors one end of strategy.
The other end is about trade-offs.
The literature emphasizes how choices or trade-offs are integral to effective strategy. In the game, this aspect is most obvious. We have 5 players (discs) which can be placed in offensive or defensive positions. The game is a best of three contest — first to two goals wins. When we’re behind, we commit 3–4 players to attacking positions, to maximize scoring, thus accepting the risk of leaving gaps in defense. If the opponent is stronger (their rating is displayed), we may opt for a slower but more secure opening, thereby committing more ‘players’ to defence. Just like in real world sports, trade-offs are deliberately made to maximize chances of victory.
Strategy moves the needle
This is another lesson I learnt. It is easy to “park the bus” i.e. put all our 5 players to cover the goal. No shot can get through. This works in theory but not in practice. The game has move timers but there is no defined duration for the overall game. Each move has to be made in x seconds but the scores can be locked at 1–1 for as long as no one scores the second (winning) goal. The longest game I’ve played is 7 minutes, which seems like eternity in a real time battle of wits and skill.
Continual defense is not a strategy. Opponents usually keep bombarding fortresses.
Sooner or later, we will need to “enter ”the game either for our own sanity or just to pro-actively deflect waves of attacks to get some breathing space. Also, if we keep defending, at some point our own pieces become liabilities — like chess when the King or Queen are blocked by their own pieces.
We can resist playing ball but only up to a point. Strategy is about moving. Inertia is not an option. Strategy is about winning, not mere participation.
A recent HBR article captures this succintly: the essence of strategy is positioning yourself to out-compete specific rivals.
Strategy is execution
There is an integral link between strategy and execution. Indeed, one is nothing without the other. This obvious fact is also borne out repeatedly in the literature.
The game is made this interlink abundantly clear. Soccer Stars, is basically a chess style game, played using checkers style discs in a snooker like reboundable “field”, using a football theme!
In the game, both players have the same resources. 5 discs each. Of course, their capabilities in using the resources vary. Better players are better planners and better executors. The best players I’ve played against respond better to any situation. They also respond earlier i.e. don’t let adverse situations develop in the first place.
At a practical level, this intimate link between strategy and execution is even more pronounced.
Strategy is a pattern in actions over time — Henri Mintzberg
Despite our grand plans for the next and successive moves, we still need to ensure the most fundamental basic: the disc actually travels at the intended speed and in the intended direction. If we play a shot badly, then subsequent plans have to be reworked or perhaps abandoned even. Getting that 45 degree rebound, which sounds so do-able in theory, takes practice and accuracy to execute. Actual execution of the plan is what really matters. A recent HBR article title on this theme summarizes best: smart leaders focus on execution first and strategy second.
Strategy is dynamic
In the game, we constantly oscillate between our overall plan and next move. These keep changing in response to the opponents move or their perceived game plan.
Strategies are not fixed. They are dynamic.
No battle plan surives contact with the enemy — Helmuth von Moltke
Playing the game, I also realized the role of chance or random probability.
Strategy does not exist in a vacuum. When we read strategy documents, it’s easy to fall into the trap that we are in the centre of a perfect world that will allow us to execute effortlessly.
A number of probabilities come into play. The most obvious one is the probability of converting our intention into action. If execution is poor, then strategy counts for little. If we miss a sitter, the opponent gets a lifeline. The same probability also applies to our opponents. If they miss a sitter, then our possibilities expand instantly. The other realization is that for our strategy, the opponent will make a counter-strategy.
Luck, chance, counter-attack, circumstance, serendipity, poor execution or probability. We can call it whatever. These elements ensure that the playing field remains dynamic. It forces us to constantly (re)calibrate our strategy at both macro (game) and micro (next move) levels.
So what is strategy?
In terms of frameworks, I like Roger Martin’s strategy choice cascade:
- What is our winning aspiration?
- Where will we play?
- How will we win where we have chosen to play?
- What capabilities must be in place to win?
- What management systems are required?
When I look back at the game in this context, I realize that I repeatedly traversed this choice cascade in real-time: positioning pieces, refining my aim, playing aggressively or passively, playing to strengths, re-calibrating my plans, (trying to) remain calm under pressure, adjusting tempo, avoiding being holed up in corners which are hard to get out of etc. My winning aspiration was supported by a range of mutually consistent tactics, capabilities and “management systems”. When I won, I continued best practices. When I lost, I re-evaluated. In both cases, I was continually formulating this choice cascade.
A more concise definition of the essence of strategy is provided by Richard Rumelt in his fantastic book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.
“The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action.”
When I look back, this effectively summarizes everything I did in the game. In my assessments, I’ve used 4 terms to try and define strategy: perspective, execution, moving the needle and dynamic. These terms slot in seamlessly. At every move (execution), I conducted a diagnosis (dynamic), based on a guiding policy (perspective) which informed a coherent (re)action (execution).
For the concluding comparison, I revisit the dictionary definition of strategy — a plan of action for an overall aim.
After playing Soccer Stars, I would make some additions. Instead of it just being a plan, strategy is a dynamic, deliberate and ably executed plan of action to achieve an overall aim.
In the light of my experiences of playing this game, I think we can understand strategy as everything that allows you to win, using your capabilities. It is your game plan, as executed on match day, that helps you to outscore opponents.