What Strategies Are

Monsanto Fortress

On the 3rd of May each year, the women of Monsanto, Portugal, walk up a stone path from the town to the top of the mountain.  They enter the fortress there and then cast clay jars full of flowers down from its granite walls in commemoration of the villagers’ resistance to the many sieges in the town’s long history.  During a stay in the town, I was told a story about the clay jars and what they represent.

They represent cows.  The story goes like this.  Long ago, perhaps in the 1100’s, Monsanto was under siege.  The people of the area had taken refuge in the peak’s fortification and the besiegers were camped outside the walls.  Those walls of Monsanto stone were effectively impenetrable, and like many sieges, it became a game of who could outlast the other.  The Monsanto residents could look down on the besiegers and tell that they were running out of food and couldn’t last much longer.  The besiegers couldn’t see whether the residents were well-supplied or not.  They weren’t.  It came to the point at which the fort’s food supply was down to one cow.  What to do?  Someone – it’s not recorded who – devised a strategy to get the besiegers to leave.

The besiegers were sitting around doing whatever idle besiegers do while waiting for a town to give in, when a cow came flying over the wall and down among them.  After examination, the besiegers determined that the townspeople had tossed a perfectly good cow down on them (perfectly good at least at the moment it went over the wall), and it was obvious that if they could afford such a gesture they must have enough food to easily outlast the besiegers.  After a little thought and a hearty meal of beef, the besiegers packed up and left to look for easier pickings elsewhere, disappointed at missing the opportunity to plunder and pillage the people of Monsanto.

Instead of choosing to capitulate or starve, the villagers chose to pursue a wily strategy and risked the last of their food (which would have run out soon enough, anyway) to gain their objective.  Let’s use their strategy to talk about strategies in general.  But first let’s lay down a definition of strategy.

What is a strategy, actually?

Fair question.  People who write books about strategy sometimes seem to start out to define it, but at the last moment veer away from an actual definition and talk about what a strategy entails, or where it sits in a hierarchy of thinking processes.  To the extent that a definition is approached at all, it’s usually framed in terms of a specific type of strategy (competitive, for example) or field of specialization (e.g. business).   Our agenda is broader and more general.  The need for good strategies permeates our entire lives.  We want our thinking and skills to apply to any situation in need of a strategy.  Our definition has to reflect that level of generality.  Later, if you or I need to be intensively involved in business strategy, for instance, we can delve into any of a variety of business strategy books or articles and mine them for good ideas.   But in general we want to be able to talk about strategyany kind of strategy.  OK, here it is.

What a strategy is

Definition of a strategyHow advantages in resources are to be exploited against vulnerabilities in barriers to reach objectives.

That’s it.

This definition holds for all types of strategy in all fields of use and is independent of any specific content – just what we want.  The six elements embedded in the strategy definition are complete and consistent, and allow us to define a simple, scalable process for devising strategies.

These elements are the atomic units of a strategy.  They will inevitably and frequently find their way into our discussions, so it’s important that they hold the same meanings for us.  We’ll treat them as mildly technical terms and develop the ideas more in the next post.

Strategy Elements

Of course strategies don’t just consist of bare elements.  To someone devising one they’re rich with other significance as well.  They’re puzzles, they’re thinking games, they’re how to win.  They show the way to what must be done, and how to do it.  They provide the discipline for meeting difficult objectives.

On the other hand …

What a strategy is not

If one or more of the 6 elements is missing, then, whatever else it  is, it’s not a strategy.

What kind of strategy can it be without an objective  – or a barrier interfering with it? What kind of strategy without a vulnerability or an advantage to apply it to?  Or without resources that provide advantages?  Or without an exploit that pulls the pieces together?  Answer:  not a strategy, but some kind of partial strategy-ish thing.  A faux strategy.

If we leave out one or more of the elements when we’re devising a strategy, we do so at our peril.  Those missing elements are the fountain of unintended consequences.   Don’t drink from it.

Ask someone what their strategy is.  Chances are that they’ll tell you what their objective is, or describe a sequence of actions.  “My strategy is to  … (fill in the list of objectives)”.   Let’s have  a little fantasy conversation with someone about their  strategy.  Say, you’re an Army Captain in a combat situation, have just shown up and want to know what’s going on.  So you ask.

“Lieutenant, what’s your strategy?”  (in the army, they’d traditionally use the term “tactics” here, instead of “strategy”).  “My strategy is to take the top of that  hill.”

“That’s a good objective, but it’s not a strategy. Your strategy  is how you’re planning to meet that objective.”

“OK, first we’re going to get to the other side of the stream, undetected. Then we’re going to flank an infantry squad near the trail. Then we’re going to take out the pill box covering the trail about half way up the hill,  and then we’ll take the trail the rest of the way to the top, where we’ll establish  a position.”

“Still not a strategy.  That’s  a good list of sub-objectives leading to your final objective. And the sub-objectives do give some insight into the barriers between you and your final objective (for example that enemy squad and the pill box), but that’s about all. I won’t understand your strategy until I also know the vulnerabilities in those barriers (e.g. opening in the pill box?), the advantages available in your resource (e.g. a grenade launcher?) and just how you intend to position those advantages against the vulnerabilities to get to your  objective.  Speaking of barriers, how are you going to deal with that squad you slipped past down below, once you’ve  created a rukus attacking that pill box?  Won’t they be a barrier again – won’t they be all over you?”

The point here is that a person doesn’t fully understand a strategy, including his own, if he can’t address all the elements in it.  And that can be a real problem.

All the pieces

OK, this is a good time to look at all the elements of a strategy together.  Let’s pick a really simple one that we would normally just do in our heads without bothering to think about it much.  We’ll get back to Monsanto, which is a bit more subtle case, in a moment.

Let’s say we need to move a heavy rock a few inches.  What’s our strategy?  We just need to unpack the situation something like this:

  • Objective:           move a big rock a few inches
  • Barrier:               it’s heavy
  • Vulnerability:   the weight can be overcome with a tool
  • Advantage:         can make a lever and fulcrum out of 2x4s
  • Resource:            a pile of lumber in the back yard
  • Exploit:                 position the lever & fulcrum, push down on the                           lever to move the rock

That’s a complete description of our strategy’s elements.  For a strategy this straight forward, we normally wouldn’t even bother to articulate it this way – we’d just do it.
But if we had an additional objective to move the rock really quickly, we might have taken the trouble to walk through and review our elements and then recall another resource:  that stick of dynamite in the shed …

In any case, the main thing is to get the 6 elements in your head, working.

And now let’s (finally) get back to Monsanto and look at the elements of our villagers’ strategy:

  • Objective:  make besiegers go away
  • Barrier:  besiegers won’t leave unless they have to, because they hope for plunder 
  • Vulnerability in barrier:  besiegers out of food and may not be able to outlast villagers
  • Advantage in resource:  in this game of bluff, villagers could appear to be able to outlast besiegers, which would induce the besiegers to go on their way
  • Resource:  one cow
  • Exploit:  throw the cow over the fortress wall

So a description of the complete strategy is just this:  Throw the cow over the fortress wall to the besiegers, so they think the villagers have plenty of food and can easily outlast the besiegers, and thereby convince them to go on their way.

Using the 6 general elements, the description of this specific strategy is simple and complete.  The whole strategy has been stripped down to its essentials.  We can use the same elements to formulate any strategy.  Some strategies will be more complex, as we shall see – but they’ll be constructed from the same 6 elements.

Real Strategy identifies all the elements and how they work together.  Many strategies may appear to be good – even brilliant – until a little examination reveals a critical weakness.  How many battles have been lost by overlooking a critical factor?  How many clever investment schemes have been disasters for similar reasons?

A little thought beforehand is way cheaper than a lot of expensive afterthought.  Using a short checklist of 6 elements can help you evaluate your strategy (or someone else’s) and save yourself from a world of hurt.  Obviate those unintended consequences.

For my own part, plenty of my strategies have resulted in consequences that I just didn’t intend (usually in addition to the ones I did intend).  Sometimes beneficial; sometimes not.  How about you?


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In the next post (Anatomy of a Strategy) we’ll take a closer look at the 6 elements and how they combine.  Check it out.

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Photo credit:  Monsanto Fortress, by “nmmacedo “.  See Monsanto photos and other excellent images in his photo stream at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/nmmacedo/4346808549/in/photostream/

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3 Responses to What Strategies Are

  1. Mary Jess says:

    Do you have any strategies or arguments for or against our sons proposal. He wants to be a professional potter. He would like us to loan him the start up costs which would be betweenn $10,00 to $15,00. Do you think this is feasible?

  2. Mary – Here are some thoughts. First, he’s a very good potter and knows how to make high quality pottery in quantity. He’s also done it long enough that you know his interest is no passing fancy. Technically, he knows what he’s doing. So these important boxes can be checked. The question then becomes whether or not he can make a success of it as a business. By business success, I mean make enough income to support himsef (& significant other) in a way he regards as acceptable, and also pay off his loans.

    So you guys need to run some rough numbers. Decide on an acceptable income level. Estimate what his gross sales have to be to have a profit equal to the income level (i.e. gross = approx. expenses incl. tax + profit). Decide if the amount of pottery that he has to move to bring in that gross is realistic (is it in the range of other known potterys? will the loan buy the capital equipment needed to reach the target volume and carry him until he reaches his goal?). Finally, is he willing to work his tail off for 2-3 years to get the business off the ground? If the answer is “yes” then go for it. If the answer is “no way”, don’t do it. If the answer is “maybe”, sharpen your pencil and take a closer look.

    If the answer is “yes” and he doesn’t have much experience running a business, you might want to make taking a small business course a precondition for the loan. The SBA has Small Business Development Centers in nearly every city, their courses are good, and also inexpensive.

    Hope this helps …

  3. Jon R says:

    Mary / BIll – For my own practice, I tried to put the start-up pottery decision within the context of the 6 elements. Mary – Each element would require a lot of work to adequately determine if the risk/reward is worthwhile for both you and your son.

    Bill – I’d be interested in your comments to see if I’m applying these concepts correctly.

    Objective: Start pottery business
    Barrier: Start-up costs / unsure profitability
    Vulnerability in barrier: Is there demand for the items he makes? If yes, vulnerability exists.
    Advantage in resource: Objectively, does your son have a superior product or superior price.
    Resource: Equipment & Pottery skills
    Exploit: Begin business

    Excellent introduction to strategy!

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