Seven Ways to See Strategy
How to make what's invisible, visible
Strategy is invisible. Ephemeral. Ghost-like. You can believe it’s there when it’s not, and you may never see it when one’s working against you.
So how do we “see” strategy? How can we take something theoretical and make it empirical? How can we pin it down, observe it, what are some ways of approaching it, even if it so often escapes the power of our eyes to visualize it?
One way was pioneered by the US Naval War College, a method of thinking through the “fit” of a particular strategy and the environment. It boils down to a series of questions, tied to “dimensions” of strategy, that put laser-focus on challenges in warfare. With these questions, the questioner shines light on what might otherwise go unseen.
For example, the “International” dimension, asks:
How successful were political and military leaders at seizing opportunities to isolate their adversaries from potential allies? What common interests or policies unified coalition partners? Did coalition strategies solidify or split it apart?
The “Economic and Material” dimension asks:
What economic system did each country possess: predominantly agricultural, mercantile, industrial, or post-industrial? Did the defense-industrial base produce the weapons and military technology the country needed?
The “Institutional” dimension asks:
What were the roles, relationships, and functions of the institutions involved in developing strategy? Did organizational problems undermine civil-military relations?
Finally, the “Cultural and Social” dimension asks:
How did a belligerents’ culture, society, ideology, and religion affect the strategy-policy match? Did a belligerent possess a discernible “strategic culture” or “way of war” and, if so, did this allow its adversary to predict and exploit its behavior?
These questions all center on war between countries. That’s helpful if you’ve got a short haircut and spend a lot of time wearing cammo, but less so if you’re otherwise engaged in different form of conflict. So let’s widen the lens a bit, widen the scope, and think through some other ways to “see” strategy. (One note—often, “seeing” strategy is best accomplished through its absence.)
1. Failure. Simply put, there’s no better way. It’s ugly, sure—but by far the most effective way to spot strategy is during the fall or after it’s collapsed.
2. Confusion. When a single organization isn’t driving toward a single North Star, that’s the absence of strategy at work. Or when a new challenge rises, and individuals in an organization aren’t carrying similarly-calibrated compasses, then you get confusion as clear as chickens driving cars (to cross the road).
3. Apathy. Is your team inspired or apathetic? Your assets, whatever they might be—in business, sales personnel; in sports, players; in the military, troops—are they motivated by the desired objective, empowered by clear choices in a strategy, and equipped to act? If not, if they’re apathetic, then you’re seeing negative strategy.