I almost always see strategy defined as the art of relating ends and means. It’s defined that way time after time, often but not always with a few extra criteria added here and there. Usually something about plans or resources. But I’ve long felt that I’d prefer to define strategy as the art of positioning. That presumes a consideration of ends and means, but in my view, it’s not as abstract a definition, and gets to the core concern right away. In looking around for who else may favor such a definition, the best and almost only leader I find is Michael Porter and his writings about corporate strategy. He’s says explicitly that strategy is the art of positioning – apropos market positioning in particular. maybe in some long-forgotten moment, that’s where I got the notion in the first place. Meanwhile, i’ve been told that, of military strategists, Jomini emphasizes positioning the most. This is not my area of expertise. I’d like to know more: is the “ends and means” view so accepted, so basic, so adaptable, that it’s not worth questioning? What’s to be gained, and/or lost, by the “positioning” view? Is there any strategy that isn’t about positioning?
This is a great question, because it is a clarifying question about fundamentals.
I am not familiar with Micheal Porter’s work, but Chet Richards pointed out in his excellent Certain to Win that there are some significant differences in applying strategic thinking to business compared to using strategy in war. While war and the market both represent dynamic, competitive environments which require actors to adapt to survive, war is a destructive enterprise while business is ultimately transactional, cooperative and constructive, though you may have to overcome competition and conflict first. Conflict and competition on which the state and society place tight legal constraints to which buyers and sellers must conform. Arguably, this explains the drift toward oligopolistic competition in regulated capiltalist economies: the constraints of rule of law which govern market actors would tend to give an even greater emphasis to “positioning” in peaceful economic competition than in warfare.
What about “positioning” and strategy generally?
Strategy is indeed defined by most experts as the alignment of Ends -Ways -Means. In my opinion, it is the most practical starting point for people of any level of strategic skill to consider what is to be done in the short or medium term within a known framework ( a theater, region, an alliance system, nation-state etc.). “Positioning” falls within this trinity under “ways” – for example, something as simple as seizing the high ground or as complicated as maneuver warfare theory is, in essence, an effort to acquire a comparative advantage over your opponent. Having comparative advantages are always good but they are usually transitory rather than being something that can be “locked in” permanently ( though man has tried – ex. the Great Wall of China, Constantinople on the Dardanelles, the age of fortresses in 16th-17th C. Europe, Mercantilist Policy, Massive Retaliation etc.). Normally, you have to keep moving, tactically adjusting your position in response to your opponent’s efforts to re-balance.
Positioning also exists outside the trinity of Ends-Ways-Means as the initial starting conditions that shape subsequent strategy. The phrase “Where you stand depends on where you sit” conveys the lesson that our perspectives, our premises, are deeply affected from where we begin. Geopolitical theory is rooted in this idea but positioning can be something other than physical location – politics and culture are positional because they are embeded with values and what we value to some extent determines what our Ends are going to be and how we perceive and define the problem for which we will employ a strategy to overcome.
The latter kind of positioning can be *very* problematic because ideological concerns inflame passions, distort our rational calculus of matching means to ends and generally introduce ever larger amounts of irrationality into strategic decision making at the expense of empirical observation. Boyd would call this a “mismatch” with reality from a corrupted OODA Loop and a textbook example would be the behavior of Imperial Japanese leaders in WWII. Launching an unwinnable war with the United States and prosecuting it almost to national annihilation was driven to a demonstrable extent by Japanese cultural norms related to honor, debt (on-giri), the “Imperial Will” and dysfunctional constitutional arrangements that made extricating Japan from a strategic cul-de-sac politically impossible. To a lesser extent, American prosecution of the war in Vietnam and the occupation of Iraq share similar irrationality derived from a priori ideological positioning.
A final observation:
When time horizons are very long and/or the problem is ill-defined and the framework boundaries vague or unknown or uncertainty high, the cognitive requirements for strategic thinking shift and it may not be possible to move beyond speculating as to Ends to the point where action should or even can be taken effectively. More information may be required. 0r greater means than exist. The problem may only be a hypothetical potentiality, rather than an actual problem. This point is one that is likely to be disputed as even being in the realm of strategy and could belong in that of theory or politics, depending on your perspective.
Many readers here are students of strategy or even professional strategists. In the interest of brevity, I’ve avoided getting into the specifics of schools of strategic thought or Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu or Jomini, but I’d like to invite readers to weigh in on Dr. Ronfeldt’s question or my response as they wish.