Change & innovation Start up, entrepreneurs Vision & strategy

What is the definition of strategy?

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 –

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 Peter Compo [1], 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! 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’ laments, “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 labelled 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 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.

[1] 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.

Arkaro –


Mark Blackwell founded Arkaro in 2016 following a career in organisations both large and small, covering a wide range of industries including animal health, specialty chemicals, advanced materials, food, and feed ingredients. 13 years at DuPont included 8 years of consulting roles across multiple businesses. Expertise included Six Sigma, Integrated Business Planning, Product Line Management and Business Productivity. At this time Mark worked with Pete as the ideas forming Emergent Approach to Strategy™ were developed. More recently Mark has provided feedback on the book prior to publication and is the first affiliated partner to deliver the Emergent Approach to Strategy™