"Good" Isn't Enough

There's no such thing as a "good" or "bad" strategy

For the record, I liked Richard Rumelt’s 2011 book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters. It was insightful about the many flaws and faults common in strategy-making. He precision-targeted many culprits.

Most crummy strategy, in Rumelt’s estimation, stems from “the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy.” When that happens, bad strategy arrives in the form of “vague aspirations,” “hard choices are avoided, and/or when leaders are unwilling or unable to define and explain the nature of the challenge,” too much “fluff” (which he calls a “form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments”), and there’s no true attempt to “address critical issues.”

Rumelt claims to have coined the term “bad strategy” (at a US Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment conference in 2007).

Then there’s that title: “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.”

Think about that for a moment. Is there some quantity of goodness the strategist is aiming for? Some level of “good” a strategist can aspire to? Is there some badness “floor” a strategist has to step over to ensure they’ve escaped bad strategy?

Of course not.

There is no objective standard in strategy. There is no clear “good” or simple “bad.” Strategy isn’t a grade-school math test. Strategy is subjective, because the adversary’s efforts are the pre-conflict unknown standard.

Strategist and professor Colin Gray reinforced this principle. He once wrote that the strategist “need only be good enough” to succeed over an adversary. Retired British Royal Navy officer Steven Jermy has also found, “the term ‘good strategy’ is a poor term. Strategy, generally speaking, is about a dialectic, it’s about a confrontation, so that’s why ‘superior’ is the much better term, because strategy can only be gauged in terms of confrontation.”

In strategy, in sum: there’s no “good,” but there is “good enough.”

With a couple caveats. Some may try to use language jujitsu to pin down a strategy as either “good” or “bad.” During the recent Obama administration, policy guru Cass Sunstein was famous for using the phrase “better is good.” It’s a nice sentiment.

Another clever dodge: the strategy-making process can be called “good” or “bad.” Sure, there are objective characteristics that describe the difference between good and bad processes (which Rumelt’s book did so well). But that’s not the strategy itself.

Think of it this way. There’s three basic steps: strategy-making, the strategy itself, and then the outcome. We can assign an objective description to the first and last steps.

We also know a strategist can do everything right and/or well in the strategy-making process and still lose.

The adversary’s performance matters. That makes strategy subjective. Therefore, a strategist should always aim to be better/superior than the adversary in a given moment.