What is the definition of strategy?

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A strategy is the central rule of a framework, designed to unify all actions and decisions around busting the bottleneck to achieving the foremost aspiration. 


by Mark Blackwell, Arkaro (mark@arkaro.com)

What is the definition of strategy? The article “Have you tested your strategy recently?” suggested that a strategy be 35 words or less to ensure understanding across the organisation – but can you define what a strategy is? There appears to be confusion. Dr Pete Compo, author of the upcoming book The Emergent Approach™ to Strategy, reviewed over 70 definitions from sources in the fields of business, military game theory, complex adaptive systems, and others! (If interested, Arkaro can provide a summary on request). Broadly these definitions fell into 7 categories;

Strategy as…

1. Aspirations

2. Plans or sub-goals (or as is usually the case in practice, massive lists of the same)

3. Something that is big or important

4. A set of choices

5. Its desired characteristics, or what strategy is supposed to achieve

6. A pattern

7. Ways, hows, and means (i.e., the entire framework of visions, missions, goals, plans, sub-goals, tactics, metrics, values, scenarios, and other components)

  •  While the authors provide insights, under scrutiny, each definition misses the mark:

1. Strategies are not aspirations.

  • A strategy is one of the tools for achieving aspirations. When aspirations are substituted for strategies it creates an enormous gulf between desired outcomes and what people need to do day to day. This was explained more in “Is your strategy working for you?” In the language of Six Sigma, You cannot manage the Ys. Substituting aspirations for strategy leads to one of the reasons leaders lament, “if only my people would execute.” It is impossible to execute or implement aspirations directly

2. Plans or sub-goals cannot be strategies because they do not supply real-time guidance on what to do

The large PowerPoint decks labeled as strategy, yet filled with analysis and long lists of plans and goals, go a long way to explain why only 14% of employees understand their company’s strategy and direction. Even if these lists were uniformly memorised across the organisation recall that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” or as Mike Tyson would say “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face ”. A strategy should provide guidance after the first punch! Plans are future actions and are important for coordination and evaluation—they are just not strategies.

3. Strategies do not determine what is big or important; aspirations determine importance. ·

  • Strategies are not just for multi-billion dollar business turnarounds – the more modest aspiration of losing weight requires a strategy!
  • Strategy relates to solving the bottleneck to aspirations, or busting them. For example, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal were strategic to the British Navy because if it controlled those two choke points, it controlled the Mediterranean Sea.

4. A good strategy will demonstrate that choices are made – but choices alone cannot define a strategy…

  • Whilst certainly an advance over the previous definitions note that the mission is a choice, the aspiration is a choice, the plan is a choice, the metrics to measure progress are choices, and so on  ……so there must be something more than choice alone to define strategy.

5. Strategy can be described but not defined by its characteristics or what it is supposed to achieve

  • Some define strategy by its needed characteristics, or by what it is supposed to achieve. For instance, Michael Porter, in his widely read paper – “What is Strategy?” – states that strategy is what gives a “unique competitive position for the company.” He and others place additional demands on strategy as well. It must create fit between the various functions of an organization. It must be cohesive, coherent, integrative, feasible, unifying, externally oriented, people focused, and holistic. It must have trade-offs and serve stakeholders. It must be actionable and must include an understanding of risk.
  • While these and others may be wonderful requirements for strategy, none of them define it. An automobile engine may need to be efficient, easy to manufacture, and robust to severe weather, but none of these requirements defines an engine.

6. While following a strategy may lead to a pattern or outcome, a strategy can’t be the pattern because strategies are for creating and guiding patterns of action

  • It is popular to describe strategies as patterns whether they be emergent or planned, or a spectrum in between. However, this merely describes strategy after the event. Describing the historical pattern provides no insight on what a strategy must be to achieve the aspirations.

7. A strategy is not the entire ways, hows, and means, nor the entire framework or master plan

  • Although it is good to distinguish ways, means, and hows from ends, these concepts still describe a master plan, the entire collection of visions, missions, goals, tactics, plans, metrics, beliefs, rational, analysis, etc. that is the strategy framework — everything needed for making a change or innovating. Therefore,  ways, means or hows are simply not specific enough as a concept of strategy and again give strategy no unique role.

So what is the definition of Strategy? : Strategy is the Central and Unifying Rule of a Framework


There is one other concept in the list of 70 of strategy which does bring meaning to the definition. It is the concept of a rule. Compo makes the concept of a rule more specific and says,

A strategy is the central rule of a framework, designed to unify all actions and decisions around busting the bottleneck to achieving the foremost aspiration

This definition retains what is useful in these 70 definitions and solves the problems identified above.

…. Some examples of good strategies? And more about what is the Framework?…. Wait for more posts in this Strategy Insights series!

By working with your team in Agile-like sprints Mark Blackwell helps your team create strategy alternatives, choose the best strategy and establish a dashboard of metrics and triggers to drive execution.

Instead of the “do it for you” approach, Arkaro takes the “do it with you” method ensuring the team has ownership of the strategy but guided by experienced expertise and external objectivity to secure a quality outcome.

The efficient agile methodology allows Arkaro to support as a trusted partner while the strategy evolves and is implemented. Please contact Mark to learn more, meanwhile follow Strategy Insights blog posts on Arkaro’s LinkedIn page for regular updates on The Emergent Approach to Strategy™

To hear Mark and Pete talk about the definition of strategy listen to this podcast

Dr. Peter Compo author of The Emergent Approach to Strategy
Dr. Peter Compo

Dr. Peter Compo, author of the Emergent Approach to Strategy™ —scientist, engineer, and corporate veteran—spent twenty-five years at E.I. DuPont in a wide range of positions in R&D, product management, supply chain leadership, and business management—including director of DuPont Display Materials and Director of Corporate Integrated Business Management. Coupled with a background in music, Dr. Compo began to see the same adaptive patterns of innovation and successful change in all these areas. He also saw the need for a new approach to strategy and spent seven years integrating the science of complex adaptive systems with strategy theory and practice. The Emergent Approach to Strategy™ is the book he wished he had had at the start of his career.

Mark Blackwell - independent consultant Arkaro
Mark Blackwell

Mark Blackwell founded Arkaro in 2016 following a career in both large and small organisations, covering a wide range of industries across agriculture, food and chemicals. As Global Sales and Marketing Director Mark led the growth of the animal health company Antec International to its acquisition by DuPont. Leadership positions in DuPont developed expertise in Business Development, Innovation, Product Line Management, Integrated Business Planning, Business Productivity and Six Sigma Black Belt Project Management. At DuPont Mark worked with Pete Compo as the ideas forming the Emergent Approach to Strategy™ were developed.  In recent years Mark has been involved in the preparation of the Emergent Approach to Strategy and is the first affiliated partner to deliver to help product line and business teams design and implement adaptive strategies.