THE STRATEGIC LAWYER

::.law + strategy.::.law + governance.::.law + politics.::. ::.you get the jist.::

There’s Strategy… and then there’s Strategy

The same great word… two common usages

Over the course of my many and various “grazings” on the topic, I’ve noticed that there are two branches of usage of the term “strategy” that, while they often overlap, are also distinct from each other. The same goes for other military and chess-related terms such as “stalemate”, “tactics”, and so on.

I also notice that often as not, the distinction between the types of usage is blurred at best, if not completely conflated.

I find that problematic. The differences between the types of usage are important, and in some ways are key, depending on the type of model or method one is describing. Because they map imperfectly onto each other, the conflation of the usages severely limits the transferrability and usefulness of metaphors, analogies and even the most general of discussions on the topics.

What is Strategic Thinking?

The Game of Chess Lucas van Leyden (Public Domain)

The Game of Chess Lucas van Leyden (Public Domain)

Definitions are important. We use words as signifiers and shortcuts. In the case of the word “strategy”, the concepts, actions, paradigms and methods signified are complex, interconnected, flexible and potentially vast. This also means that there’s the possibility that what one person assumes is being signified is quite different from what others imagine is being referred to.

For the one-liner version, I turn to a definition my husband proposed and that I liked for its simplicity and directness: strategy is the formulation of a plan for achieving a long-term goal. (Though “long term” is of course a relative timeline.)

Another formulation: strategy is the process of determining desirable outcomes, then choosing which tactics to implement towards those outcomes and deploying those tactics, while also attempting to anticipate counter moves and formulating ways to respond to them that keep in mind the larger strategic outcomes.

The focus then, should be on outcomes. Any specific methods chosen should be selected on the basis of how best to achieve those ultimate aims.

There are many corollaries: those outcomes and aims might change, depending factors like the emergence of new information, the depletion of resources, and any combination of a variety of roadblocks or complications that arise.

And as for those old sayings, about not being able to see the forest for the trees, or winning the battle but losing the war? Those essentially refer to the opposite of strategic thinking.

The Traditional Usage, a.k.a. the Diplomatic Model

Though I imagine that “strategy” and the vocabulary associated with it may have been more loosely used to describe other types of undertakings and styles of planning, what I will be calling the “diplomatic model” refers to the use of these terms in the context of what I’ll call traditional conflicts between opponents.

These scenarios involve the squaring off of two antagonists, either directly, or via proxies, in the context of a dispute. This applies to the range of different types of engagement, from diplomatic negotiations and talks, to armed conflict and outright hostilities. Many of the older books on strategy refer to these types of encounters in discussing tactics to deploy in the service of the larger outcomes sought.

The terminology for this traditional usage maps tidily onto modern litigation in many ways, as I will discuss in a future post. It seems to me that this is a potentially useful and fruitful paradigm to apply, and the metaphors and analogies are often apt, in analysing what is involved in a given lawyer’s role, when acting on behalf of a client.

Usage in Business and Personal Development, a.k.a. the Rivalry and the Development Models

Strategy, in this context, means something rather different. The general definition still applies. But, in the context of personal planning (the “development model”), strategy is often simply about long-term planning and goals, and the selection of methods to use in achieving those goals. The conflict-based language of the traditional usage is not as useful here, and works I’ve read that try to apply the traditional military strategy books to these contexts often have to make some rather creative leaps in order to achieve relevance.

Strategic paradigms in the context of business development can often be similar to what is found in the arena of personal development. There is a significant piece involving the formulation of long-term business goals. It also involves another kind of usage, which is more oppositional, but it is worth noting that the primary type of conflict that arises in the business context is what I will call the “rivalry model”.

This refers to the idea that conflict in business often arises as competing businesses vie for customers, clients or suppliers. The two businesses are rivals in the context of a third party, and that is often the primary nature of the conflict. So most tactics undertaken in the rivalry model, for edging out competitors, should have as their focus the outcome of winning over that third party. To put it another way: focusing on the rival is the weaker position; the focus, in the rivalry model, should always be the customers and how to win them over. Any losses to the rival should therefore arise as collateral damage to the process of winning over the target audience/customer/client by aiming for excellence.

Put together an irresistible package–the product, the brand, the packaging, the promotion, the presentation. As a consumer, I am most persuaded by products that are so fantastic and sexy that I end up forgetting about the existence of competing products. A secondary or tertiary strategy might involve comparison with the rival’s product, in order to demonstrate better features or other advantages, but this is a relatively weak position.

This third party focus differs profoundly from head-on-conflict between two parties, as found in litigation, and in the traditional usage of strategic terminology. Instead, it ultimately looks more like the business and personal planning model of setting goals, creating awesome products and seeking to win over clients.

There is, of course, head-on conflict that occurs in the context of business rivalry. As an example, the business might undertake to sue a rival corporation for infringement of patents. But such tactics should always be undertaken with the outcome of winning over the third party–namely, the customer–in mind. This means that the strategic question of whether or not to sue the rival for patent infringement should be decided not just in looking at the question of whether the litigation itself is a winner, but also in asking how this is likely to impact customer perception. If the metrics of the litigation are bad, and engenders the dissipation of goodwill in the context of the business’s core market, then it may not be an effective tactic in the context of the overall business strategy.

To Summarize

The two main models of strategy-oriented terminology are the diplomatic model, which will ultimately have an extrinsic focus, on the opponent and one’s relative position in relation to that opponent, and the general business/personal models, encompassing the development and rivalry models, both of which should ultimately have intrinsic excellence as their focus, though the standards of that excellence may be formulated in with an eye to markets, customer base or other extrinsic indicators. They are both about focusing on the long term, on formulating directions and outcomes, and the bigger picture. They are also very different, in that one has direct conflict at its core, while the other is not conflict-based, except in a symbolic way (e.g. the lack of personal motivation in achieving fitness goals, for example).

The popular literature on the topic of strategy often seems to conflate these two, and attempts to use military metaphors and formulations found in the classics on the subject of the diplomatic model (e.g. the Art of War) and to apply them to what is essentially a very different kind of strategic thinking that is not grounded in direct conflict at all. 

A common kind of non-head-on competition arises in in business, namely the rivalry model of conflict. This is conflict-based, and so often attracts “strategy” type language. However, I would argue that the strategy involved in dealing with competitors in the personal and business contexts is fundamentally different to the type of strategic thinking that is involved with direct conflict with an opponent that is found in diplomacy, litigation or armed engagement. Instead, the rival-based conflict should still involve strategy that looks more like the development model, rather than like the military model. The focus should always remain on the customer and on creating products and services that are targeted to the customer’s tastes or needs, rather than on the rival, except insofar as the product, service, timeline or other target will in one way or another edge out the rival in winning that customer.

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This entry was posted on February 3, 2014 by in Strategy and tagged , , .
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