2000 Years of Strategy

The first time I was invited to a strategy session I was flattered and scared stiff. What insights could I give, what would I question, and what on earth is strategy, anyway?


Whenever I'm in doubt, I consult the experts. Strategy comes from the Greek strategos, meaning the way of the generals. Successful generals say strategy is a matter of focus and timing. It is the chess-master who foresees the gradual unfolding of a dynamic.

2000 years ago, wars in China were fought with swords, fire and strategic insight. Sun Tzu, general of the all-victorious Imperial Army, wrote ‘The Art of War’. After making the point that it is best to win without fighting, he gives a manual on how to win.

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win… The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.

a quick ear

Sun-Tzu warns against mere observation:

To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

Poor strategy reacts to today’s headlines. To shape the future, you need to know the news of tomorrow. Sun-Tzu advocates the use of spies (today’s market researchers) who find out the true spiritual and physical conditions of those besieged.

Based on inside knowledge, strategy is crafted.

All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

The business press is full of publicity blurbs and annual reports that detail corporate strategies. Successful strategists avoid the limelight:

Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate.

The superior militarist foils enemies’ plots; next best is to ruin their alliances; a poor alternative is to attack their armed forces; the worst is to besiege their cities. The superior marketer will focus on raising barriers to market entry; then disrupt opponent alliances; then if necessary an advertising blitz and in last place a price-war. The best ways are neither seen, nor heard.

gongs and drums

While the strategy is shrouded in silence, Sun Tzu recommends noise-filled tactics.

On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags. Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

Now we have golden arches and a tick for banners; jingles and corporate chants for gongs and drums. While they direct the ears and eyes, providing points of focus and energy, they are high-profile tactics, not deep strategy.

Keep the forces concentrated in an overpowering mass. The fundamental idea. Always to be aimed at before all and as far as possible. General Karl von Klausewitz.

Media budgets often chase too many hares. When you are facing a 900lb gorilla, focus is important.

The essence of strategy is, with a weaker army, always to have more force at the crucial point than the enemy. Napoleon

Easier said than done. Strategy and tactics are nothing without logistics. Many marketing dreams shatter because the money has been dissipated, or the marketing people are doing too many things. A strategist can only be as successful as his logistics allow.

slaying the logisticians

My logisticians are a humourless lot...they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay. Alexander the Great. (Today’s chief operation officers, take note.)

Alexander claimed that the best strategy never allows more than 15 minutes contact with the enemy. If so, why bother? President Dwight D Eisenhower, also once a general, gave an answer when he wrote: in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

The head of an international asset management company starts his year by marking off 30 days devoted to strategising with his team. He does it to sharpen their strategic thinking.

A force which is inferior but prepared can often defeat a superior enemy by surprise attack. Mao Tse-Tung.

Disruptor brands take well-heeled incumbents by surprise. Fresh, salient ideas, flowing from strategy to action, overcome fat budgets.

Great strategic thinking blends patient preparation with opportunistic action; logic with imagination; cautious secrecy with daring visibility. Plus, an understanding what is truly involved.

Every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. Dwight D. Eisenhower. 1953

It is a timely message to today’s leaders. War is often not the way of the generals.