What is strategy?

Business strategy expert Richard Rumelt seeks to straighten out our thinking in his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. In it, he describes the purpose of good strategy, the hallmarks of bad strategy, and what he calls the “kernel” of good strategy. But first, he tells us what strategy even is.

Despite the roar of voices wanting to equate strategy with ambition, leadership, “vision,” planning, or the economic logic of competition, strategy is none of these. The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.

A leader’s most important responsibility is identifying the biggest challenges to forward progress and devising a coherent approach to overcoming them. In contexts ranging from corporate direction to national security, strategy matters. Yet we have become so accustomed to strategy as exhortation that we hardly blink an eye when a leader spouts slogans and announces high-sounding goals, calling the mixture a “strategy.”

A good strategy does more than urge us forward toward a goal or vision. A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them.

in business, most mergers and acquisitions, investments in expensive new facilities, negotiations with important suppliers and customers, and overall organizational design are normally considered to be “strategic.” However, when you speak of “strategy,” you should not be simply marking the pay grade of the decision maker. Rather, the term “strategy” should mean a cohesive response to an important challenge. Unlike a stand-alone decision or a goal, a strategy is a coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions that respond to a high-stakes challenge.

Many people assume that a strategy is a big-picture overall direction, divorced from any specific action. But defining strategy as broad concepts, thereby leaving out action, creates a wide chasm between “strategy” and “implementation.” If you accept this chasm, most strategy work becomes wheel spinning. Indeed, this is the most common complaint about “strategy.”

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

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