What does “strategy” mean?

Definitions and meanings that matter

What does “strategy” even mean?

What’s your definition?

Do you see it as just a “synonym for expensive,” as one economist called it?

The original Greek words behind “strategy” began as military terms, and most of the early definitions are some variation on “the art of the general,” or “the art of command.”

A sixth-century writer defined it as “the means by which a commander may defend his own lands and defeat his enemies.”

One of the most popular military texts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries described strategy as “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”

Peter Drucker, credited with popularizing strategy within business circles in the 1960s, summarized it as “organizing ... tasks so that executives can perform them systematically, purposefully, with understanding, and with reasonable probability of accomplishment.”

Modern business strategists like Roger Martin have called it “the act of making an integrated set of choices, which positions the organization to win.”

And while all of these definitions share a theme, if I just write the word “strategy” I haven’t really made myself clear.

So when I use the word, what do I actually mean?

This is my definition of strategy:

“The structure to work efficiently to get what you want.”

Structure is the word I use for the output of the highest level decisions we make after determining what we want.1 Those decisions constrain our actions and keep us heading in our chosen direction.

Once we’ve defined what we want—say, a new customer—we have decisions to make before we can act effectively. Decisions like: Who are they? How much are we willing to spend, or do, or offer to get them?

What do they need to know about us for them to be interested? What do we need to say for them to understand that about us? When do we need to say it?

What has to be true about the world, the market, the competition, and the customer for our efforts to work?2

What do I like doing, that I can afford to do every day for a long time?

Those decisions provide structure, and they help you determine the most efficient way for you to proceed toward what you want.

Efficiency is key because we can’t be effective if we’re spending indiscriminately or taking unsustainable actions.

We all have limited resources, like money, time, and energy. If we’re not accounting for the most efficient uses of our resources in our strategy, we’re bound to fail in the long-term—because we’ll eventually run out of something we need to keep going.

The higher goal of effectiveness depends on the lower goal of efficiency. Effective strategy requires procedural consideration, otherwise it’s just a wish.

And to get what we want, we need to plan ahead, think long-term, and make tough decisions that occasionally hurt in the moment. To do that confidently, we need to know we’re heading in the right direction and that we’re likely to get there.

We need a structure to guide us. We need a strategy.

With a strategy, when we have a marketing decision to make, like whether to get on TikTok or start a newsletter, we already know who we want to talk to, what to say, when we need to say it, and how much we’re willing to spend—and if it’s likely to work, based on what has to be true for it to pay off.

It’s not a long, agonizing, or frustrating decision process. Instead, it becomes a creative exercise, letting us imagine all the ways we could most effectively get our chosen message across to our chosen target audience in our chosen manner at our chosen time.

Without that structure, we can spin in a circle, doing a little bit of everything all the time, burning ourselves out, but getting nowhere.

So if you’re spinning—tiring but not making progress—don’t run faster, spend more, or try yet another tactic.

Slow down, pause, and structure your efforts and your day in a way that will let you efficiently take careful, thoughtful action.

And focus your actions on what you love doing, so you can do your best every day, for your best customers, for years to come.

Trying everything and seeing what sticks feels like a good way to spend our time, but there are more things to try than hours in the day, and years in our lives.

The only way to be truly confident we’re doing the right thing is when we’ve built a structure around doing it well, doing it efficiently, and doing it every day, for a long time—happily.

It’s not enough to have a strategy to get you where you want to go, you have to want to follow that strategy, all the way through.

A “perfect” strategy that we’re unwilling or unable to follow is worse than no strategy at all—because it wastes our time.

You need to like your strategy, you need to believe in it.

And you need to feel like you can keep it up for a very long time.

You need a strategy you want.

1

I chose “structure” over “constraints” based on my fondness for this passage in The Art of War:

“Assess the advantages in taking advice, then structure your forces accordingly, to supplement extraordinary tactics. Forces are to be structured strategically, based on what is advantageous.

Cao Cao: Structure depends on strategy; strategy is determined according to events.”

2

Inspired by Roger Martin’s “Most important question in strategy”: What would need to be true?

For me, this is an analysis of the essential causes of the effects we want to see in the world. For our restaurant to be “busy,” what needs to be true is that we have customers. What needs to be true for customers is that people like us. Some things that need to be true for a positive reputation are general awareness, a standard of service and quality, and perceived value.