Defining Strategy

By Heather Grant

Defining Strategy: A historical perspective of the word that drives QUAD.


Sun Tzu and The Art of War

In late 6th Century BCE, as the Spring & Autumn period in Ancient China began tapering off, two divergent philosophies were contending for influence in society. On the one hand, there was the humanistic worldview of Confucianism. Based on mutually dependent relationships, harmony in society was revered and the moral rectitude of superiors assumed (but classic Confucianism doesn’t lend to conflict avoidance or blind obedience to authority, as some suggest). The other hand, guided by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, took to defining strategy and managing conflict altogether differently.

War has swayed thinkers and doers across all sorts of fields for ages, right up to Coach Belichick’s guerrilla gridiron. No surprise there, amirite? Yet the most potent application of Tzu’s guidelines for victory, in modern times, has been in the business world. Rather than expound on the details, I offer this HuffPost article on why The Art of War sets corporate hearts a-flutter.

Sun Tzu was the first among Ancients to formally document a strategic plan for victory. For all intent and purposes, War has always worked. Thus the modern concept of strategic planning pays homage to the ancient Chinese militarist. But for the origins of the word strategy, we have to shift our focus to Ancient Greece.


Strategos in Classical Athens

The office of strategos existed in Greece before Cleisthenes, the “father of Athenian democracy,” reformed Athens’ constitution in 507 BCE. It thereby existed before Sun Tzu penned his epic treatise, but I digress. This new constitution was based on reforms pursued in years prior by Solon, an Athenian statesman. It cemented the position of strategos, ergo the root of strategy, at the apex of Greece’s politico-military system.

The democratization of Athens established the election of strategoi (generals) from Greece’s newly formed phyles (tribes). With each man being of equal status to the others, these ten formed a board that shared responsibilities and decision-making. The citizens of Athens held the strategoi accountable–even the distinguished rhetorician Pericles. The golden age of aristocratic decadence and debauchery was over–for a while. What followed was a series of blows dealt to Greece by the Macedonians and Romans. The downfall of Athenian democracy began with Pericles’ death from plague in 429 BCE. It ended 400 years later with the absorption of Greece into the Roman Empire.

Since ancient times, and with conflicting perspectives, scholars have argued that failure was built into the Athenian model. Aristotle, for one, argued that only citizens of superior virtue are capable of harnessing democracy for the greater good. Plato blamed the institution of democracy for the death of Socrates. Karl Popper shifted the onus of failure off of institutions and onto the shoulders of the people who’d built them.

Another criticism, apropos of one of the vilest periods in US history, sees things differently. It holds that, given the subjugation of women and predominance of slavery in Greek society, Athens never was a democracy.


The methodology and philosophy of Michael E. Porter

The underlying principles of strategy are enduring, regardless of technology or the pace of change.”

Michael Eugene Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, has plenty to say about strategy. Since the late 1970s, Porter has authored a number of articles and published 18 books on the subject. In his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter defines “competitive advantage” in terms of a nation’s innovative capacity and ability to upgrade its industries. He describes a symbiotic system of four interdependent values for calculating said advantage (his “national diamond” reminds me of the Square of Opposition from classical logic, tipped onto one of its corners). What results from this calculation, per Porter’s methodology, is “the environment in which [a company is] born and [learns] how to compete.”

Porter states that prosperity is non-inherent and that “[s]tatic efficiency is far less important than dynamic improvement.” It’s inherently disadvantageous to assume a right to affluence or power. And, for institutional progress, change is of equal necessity and import. Confucianism, by its nature, disagrees with the first part of Porter’s philosophy. That said, competitive advantage is hardly the byproduct of harmony.

As for the second part, Athens failed to improve the station of all citizens. It maintained the status quo in what was hailed at that time as a sweeping reform. Perhaps the downfall of Athenian democracy was built into its institution after all.


Competitive advantage, or strategic planning in a nutshell

The Greek spelling, στρατηγός, and use of strategos have gone unchanged since before Classical Athens gave us democracy (the word). The highest ranking officer of the Hellenic army is still referred to as stratigós. In the corporate world, the principal application of strategic planning still reflects and respects Tzu’s intent. Not all strategies succeed (see: Athenian democracy) but there’s something fascinating about a word’s form and nature enduring in perpetuum.

Strategy still means what it always meant. It’s observing the landscape relative to your market or objective and best accounting for organic and inorganic influences. It is the careful consideration of actions and the scope and depth of subsequent consequences. Strategy is observing limitations or deficiencies in your competitor’s approach and utilizing them to your advantage. It’s plotting your next three moves before you make your first.

To be a student of history is to know that plans are not inherently fail-proof. What the mark of a decent modern strategist? To urge that companies eschew the quick gratification of short-sighted tactics for the dynamic growth earned from long-term strategies. Longevity is part and parcel to why and how QUAD Model works: it’s a human-centric and forward-focused strategic planning tool that cultivates progress by reducing complexity. QUAD is ingrained with the best qualities of strategic philosophies, methods, and systems, past and present.


A final note

Perhaps it’s true that successful strategic plans are also the most honest. That is, specifically regarding intentions and goals; when the intention is to edge out competition and when victory is the goal. I think Sun Tzu would agree. Maybe these kinds of plans take into account that strategy isn’t just a cycle of reflection, decision, action, reaction; repeat. It’s a creative process. It’s problem-solving made into an art form.


Heather Grant

About Heather Grant

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