What is strategy? This is the question that I asked myself at the beginning of the 90's. The trigger were the ongoing discussions in my company which always came to one conclusion. That "we need a new strategy". When we had one we needed another one. Strange.

Research pointed me quickly to Sun Tzu who wrote the most profund (and short - he had to inscribe it into bamboo) treatment that is still a required reading at military academies round the world: "The Art of War". This was about 2500 year ago.

Here is how it starts: "Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected."

He is right. Strategy is a buzzword for quite a while. But it can on no account be neglected. Because it determines if we suffer or prosper, as individual, organisation or business.

But wait before you start buying a stack of books (a few would do actually). There is good news. We all are already a strategist to some extent. I have never met anybody who scores a mere ZERO. We all have some strategic capabilities, most of the intuitively. Often we now when to act and what to do. Well, sometimes we don't. To increase the chances that we know what we are doing we should study the subject of strategy.

What is strategy?

No surprise that there is no shortage of definitions. One common definition is "Strategy is what you don't do". A variation of this theme is "Strategy is what you do when you do not HAVE to do something."

In the sense of Sun Tzu Strategy is the art to be in the position where you do not loose. He says "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win". The ultimate victory is winning without battle.

Sun Tzu - The Art of War

This is where it all starts - required reading for everybody even remotely interested in strategy. As the copyright is expired there are a lot of sources, most go back to the english translation of Lionel Giles in 1910. You can find the english text together with the chinese symbols here. The style of the old translations is geared towards the military aspects. I highly recommend the modern translation or R. L. Wing which is much more abstract! She introduces the concept of the "non-negotiable conflict" to separate this approach to strategy from cooperation like win-win and compromising.

Carl von Clausewitz - On War

His work "On War", published 1832, laid the foundation of the modern strategy thinking. Another standard reading around the world but he did not inscribe in bamboo so its a bit longer ... tough reading. Better read on paper!

He dissects the subject with great detail and its merits are in the completeness. Not everything in there was invented or formulated by him, its a structured collection of the knowledge about the subject at that time.

One more well know concept is e.g. the "fog of war". The notion that when plans are made and troops are drilled in exercises all is fine but when it is an actual battle things look very different. Its dark, communication lines are interrupted, errors are made. Sounds familiar? It does not take a battle to experience that!

John Boyd - Modern Strategy

While Sun Tzu wrote on Bamboo and Carl von Clausewitz took his time to make his point the US Air Force Colonel John Boyd - did not write at all. He held briefings. He talked to people and did not bother to write a book. He lived from 1927 to 1997 and went through an amazing development. Starting with this experience as a fighter pilot he:

  • Formulated a method to assess the performance of aircraft which lead to major changes in the US Air Force development programs
  • Came up with the OODA-Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
  • Developed a comprehensive strategy model that lead to a new doctrine of the US Marine Corps (remember that he was an Air Force Colonel ...)

Why bother with all that military stuff?

The military had and has good reason to do profound research on strategy. These three authors are considered the most relevant for this field. The starting point for your journey to study strategy.

"Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected."