“Here are our strategic ideas…”
“Our strategy is…”
“We need to think strategically…”
| STRATEGY: A SIMPLE WORD. A COMPLEX MISUNDERSTANDING.
Whether you work in the corporate world of banking, the progress-driven sector of social impact, or through watching blockbusters such as Game of Thrones, Ocean’s Eleven, or Lord of the Rings, strategy is likely a phrase you think you know.
It’s commonly thought to be about big picture thinking, with everything being a part of a grander, smarter plan. This is true. However, in my experience, so often when people refer to “strategies” it’s nothing of the sort. There is confusion. Apprehension. Even complete and utter drivel. What they are in fact referring to is something completely different: cool ideas, tactical activations, or vanity pleasure. Tactics are similar and they’re certainly crucial to success. But they’re not the same. It’s therefore a realistic viewpoint that the word has become meaningless to many who use it.
Taking this into account, for the first session of Shape History’s inaugural Strategy Week (a series of sessions allowing the team to take a step back from usual day to day work and reflect on the bigger picture), I decided to start on a historical journey, looking at some of the roots of strategy, the development of modern strategy, and how it’s relevant to understanding the discipline today. I framed the session around two core questions: What is it? And why do we need it?
|SO WHAT IS STRATEGY, ACTUALLY?
The use of strategy has quite literally changed the world and caused the rise and demise of many nations, people, cultures, and ideas. Everyone is strategic in their life, but not everyone is a strategist.
Let’s first look at the word itself. Strategy. It’s origins come from Ancient Greece and the word Stratēgós, meaning a general, a leader, or a commander of an army. It was about the ability to have a vision, give direction, and lead from the front.
Next, our second stop on the historical timeline takes us to China between 400 – 200 B.C, where we are introduced to Sun Tzu, a legendary Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher who is credited as being the author of The Art of War, a book that to this day influences key areas of life, politics, and culture.
Sun Tzu was a believer in agility. Whenever possible, he preferred to win without fighting or, at the very least, win the easiest battles first. He directed his troops to make their way by unexpected routes and attack unguarded spots, and his teachings extend far beyond the art of warfare because they are focused on finding the easiest way to achieve a specific goal. If you do plan on reading The Art of War, you’ll be glad to know it’s only a short read. It’s also important to take it with a pinch of salt, not everything is going to be relevant to a modern context!
Our penultimate stop highlights the strategic and tactical brilliance of the Carthaginian military leader Hannibal Barca, who nearly brought the Roman republic to its knees. One of his greatest victories, and one of the most pivotal events in Western history, was the Battle of Cannae. Despite being outnumbered by the Romans (86,400 troops to 50,000), Hannibal undertook an intense process of preparation and tactical execution which resulted in absolute victory. At the end of the battle, his army only suffered around 6,000 casualties/losses, whilst the Romans lost nearly 70,000.
| HOW DID HE ACHIEVE THIS? ONE WORD: PREPARATION.
Hannibal was a strategic genius. He knew he was outnumbered, and he knew the Roman Army was the most powerful force in the world at the time, and yet he was incredibly optimistic because he could see a way through. He understood the enemy, flipping their strength on its head to aid in battle formation. He understood the environment of the battleground well by ensuring the Romans were placed with not only the sun in their eyes, but the direction of the wind, ensuring dust would be blown into their faces. And through knowledge of battle tactics and knowledge of the enemy, he was able to use predictability to scenario map different outcomes and turning points that his troops could leverage on the battlefield. If you have ten minutes, I highly recommend watching this dramatisation of the battle.
| WHAT DOES ANCIENT WARFARE HAVE TO DO WITH STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS TODAY?
Campaigns are not literally a war, but they do share many similarities. They’re competitive environments where you need to exploit opportunities. You need to work to outthink your targets and make decisions to leverage advantage with one aim: success. And importantly there are specific outcomes that need to be realised with limited time, space, and resources.
On the final stop of our speedy journey throughout history, it’s important to note the dawn of modern strategy. After WW2, corporate strategy began getting a lot of attention. Peter Drucker’s extensive writings laid the foundations of the corporate managerial profession. This led to strategic thinking being rolled out among the white-collar masses, particularly in ad land, throughout the 1950s and 60s.
That brings us back to today. The word strategy is still the same, but it has expanded out into uncountable disciplines (business strategy, managerial strategy, communications strategy, social impact strategy, sustainability strategy, to name just a few) with thousands of books, blogs, speeches, and educational courses.
From Ghengis Khan, to Joan of Arc; from Niccolò Machiavelli to Napoleon; and from John D. Rockefeller to Steve Jobs, I could write many more words on great historical and influential strategists throughout the ages, all offering important lessons that can be used to help navigate today. The history of strategy above is by no means exhaustive. But it does help answer my original question – what is strategy? Put simply, it is about moving from where you are to where you want to be, looking for the shortest route to desirable ends with available means.
| WHY DO YOU NEED STRATEGY? WHAT IS THE POINT?
If we don’t think strategically we will either work tactically or pick a totally wrong course. To quote Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In other words, if you know where you want to go and have a reasonable idea of how to get there – but do not have all the details worked out – you’ll likely eventually succeed, but it will take you a while and won’t be efficient or effective. However, if you’re moving without really knowing where you want to go, you’re going to fail.
Having a clear vision of your utopia is paramount to success.
Having a strategy means everyone and everything is aligned with clear outcomes and objectives, confusion and mistakes are massively reduced, and you have greater efficiency and productivity in what you’re doing.
I started this post off with a statement: Strategy. A simple word. A complex misunderstanding.
After reading this, hopefully, you’re leaving knowing that strategy is actually a rather complex word — but with a clearer understanding of what it really means.