The word strategy is one of the most controversial and misunderstood terms in business.
Ask 100 people to define strategy, and you will get 100 different answers.
In my work as head of marketing for Latin America, I used to have countries presenting their brand marketing plans to me for approval. A great deal of time was wasted discussing: “Is this a strategy or a tactic?”
Sometimes it was neither, it was more of a wish, an ambition such as “become the first choice in the treatment of diabetes.” Please don’t even say this is a “qualitative objective;” this term should be banned from the business world.
Trying to explain or define strategy is frustrating. Some people say objectives are the “what” (what you want to achieve), and strategies are the “how” (how you will reach the objectives). This explanation is challenged by many, but I find it useful. Another clue: a strategy always involves a choice one has to make – out of several alternatives.
Over the years, I realized it was easier to conceptualize strategy, rather than to provide a definition, and I started telling a story to get the concept across. I used the Trojan War as an example. The Trojan War is a long story, so I will make it brief here.
The war starts when Helen, Queen of Sparta, is kidnapped by Paris, the Prince of Troy. Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and her husband King Menelaus was not happy about it. He organized an expedition with the powerful Greek army and some heroes, including Odysseus and the formidable Achilles (who gets hurt in his only weak spot – guess where.) A fleet of 1,000 ships was sent to Troy to bring Helen back – not an easy job: the city of Troy was surrounded by walls that were supposed to be indestructible.
One must not have a strategy without first defining the objective. The Greeks were aiming at rescuing Helen, but this objective worded like this isn’t good enough. We need a SMART objective: “to bring Helen back to Sparta, alive, in one piece, before her husband dies.” It is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Now that we have the objective (what), we can discuss how we can achieve it – the strategy. When I am lecturing, I ask the audience which strategy was deployed, and I generally get two answers – “to build a horse” (nope – the horse comes later on) or “to win the war against Troy” (nope – this is just a wish.)
Their chosen strategy was to siege Troy and battle until its surrender. Besides sieging Troy, there were other alternatives. They could have: (a) tried to negotiate a ransom, (b) used diplomacy, or (c) they might even have asked for the intervention from the Greek gods.
Spartans and Greeks sieged and warred Troy for 10 years without success (sounds familiar, right?). They decided it was time to deploy a different strategy. For the sake of this exercise, let’s suppose they came up with these alternatives:
a) Build a tunnel underneath the wall;
b) Fly over the wall (Icarus-style);
c) Deceive the Trojans into opening their gates
The Greeks decided on “c” and built a large wooden horse. They placed it in front of the gates of Troy, as a gift to acknowledge their defeat. Then, they pretended to retreat, leaving with the ships and anchoring in a hiding place. Inside the wood horse, fully armed Greeks awaited. The Trojan soldiers brought the horse inside, and during the night, Spartans and Greeks came out, opened the gates for the rest of their army and slaughtered their enemies. Helen was rescued and brought back to Menelaus. The objective had been accomplished.
Some argue that the wooden horse was the actual strategy, but in fact, it was just a tactic – there were other tricks they could have chosen to get the Trojans to open the gates. Other tactics involved: to attack at night, to get the soldiers outside to come in (instead of just kidnapping Helen), to move the ships to a hiding place, so on and so forth.
Action plans derived from tactics: define how many soldiers inside the horse, define which type of weapons to take, determine what kind of wood to use for the horse, define precisely where to hide the ships, etc etc etc.
When I tell this story, people just “get it,” and agreeing on whether something is or is not a strategy becomes easier. I think using a Greek myth to talk about strategy makes sense, after all strategy comes from the word strategus, “a leader of an ancient and especially an ancient Greek army,” according to the Webster Dictionary.
The Trojan War is part of a long narrative. It is fun and instructive, especially for those who feel their knowledge of Greek mythology is their Achilles’ horse…