That's not to say that stories of military strategy can't be profoundly inspirational. And the men and women in uniform offer a model of attitude, training, discipline, and courage that somehow seems too often missing in the business world.
That said, military strategy, on balance, has had a negative effect on the development of the modern disicipline of business strategy.
To make this point, we divided our observations into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The Good: The Use of Facts, External Focus, & Training
Let’s start on a positive note with the Good.
Three military practices immediately come to mind. They are the use of facts to support strategy development and decision-making, the use of an external focus to guide strategy development, and the use of training to support strategy implementation.
Facts to support choices of action (strategy) come from robust information gathering and analysis practices. Yet, how often in business strategy decision-making do you see the use of stale-dated information or management assumptions masquerading as facts?
The military also understands the importance of external focus; being the need to identify and understand the external factors that military strategy must address. Examples of these factors might include intelligence on enemy strength, capability, and positioning and on the relevant terrain. Not understanding such factors can have disastrous consequences for a strategy.
Businesses seem to work hard to do just the opposite and ignore relevant external factors. Consider how many multinationals today are caught in serious tax fights in foreign jurisdictions. What were they thinking? That the foreign authorities wouldn’t notice them doing business in their country?
Once the military understands the external factors and develops an appropriate strategy addressing that reality, the assigned forces are trained in a manner consistent with the strategy and external factors. In business, we just don’t do enough training, period. And sometimes it seems that when there is training, it is done in splendid isolation from any strategy.
We have a lot to learn from the military in these three areas but let's now turn to the Bad and the Ugly.
The Bad: A Stunted Definition for Strategy
The best evidence of this is that there is no commonly accepted definition of strategy.
One reason for the lack of a common definition is that the modern discipline of business strategy is still very young. It is arguably just 60 years old, if we use the publication of Peter's Drucker's The Practice of Management, 1954 to mark its birth as a discipline. We have a lot to learn.
Early academics and writers quickly fell into the trap that business strategy should be defined as a sound bite similar to the one commonly accepted as the definition for military strategy; namely "making war".
The most popular sound bite has become that business strategy is something about creating competitive advantage and value.
What is so unfortunate about this definition is that it immediately alienates all nonprofit and public sector organizations. These organizations do not relate to competitive advantage and feel creating value is simply code for making a profit.
The Ugly: A Bzyantine Strategy Vocabulary
The Ugly is the Byzantine strategy vocabulary borrowed from the military by early academics and writers and still used today in most businesses and nonprofits. Versions of this arcane vocabulary for strategy now permeate every organization. The research tells us how poor strategy understanding is in most organizations. A significant reason for this is the incredibly ponderous language for strategy being used.
For example, in one organization, “objectives” might just mean “the numbers” while in another it could mean something very different. How many meetings have you attended where the debate turned from choices of action to differences of opinion on what constitutes a strategy or tactic?
How did this happen? Don't forget that early 50's and 60's writers on the subject were all too familiar with the military, given two world wars.
So they cannot be blamed for thinking the two disciplines were the same and for borrowing the well-documented military vocabulary for strategy without ever wondering whether the vocabulary of the new discipline of business strategy should be different.
The Alpha Strategies Solution: Strategy as a System
Our review of Fayol, Drucker, Mintzberg, and Tregoe tells us that strategy needs to be defined as a choice of action.
And strategy needs to be seen as a dynamic system of multiple choices of action or strategies.
Our research tells us there are 8 choices (or strategies) common to all organizations from for-profits to nonprofits and government enterprises. In addition, we think 3 types of strategy are common to all organizations.
This is the basis of The Alpha Strategies dynamic strategy model: 8 strategies and 3 types of strategy.
The Alpha Strategies model enables modeling of the strategy system in any business or nonprofit.
Let's lose the sound bite definitions and start understanding how organizations actually work.
Let’s keep the Good we can learn from the military and lose the Bad and the Ugly.