Wednesday, April 8

Define: Strategy

Closing thoughts from a graduating business student I was recently interviewed by a Montreal-based marketing consulting firm. The role I was seeking was that of a business analyst. At approximately the mid-point of the interview, I mentioned my interest in strategic management (I must admit that the exact context of the question escapes me at this point). The interviewer, who was the firm’s lead strategist, quickly countered by asking me the definition of strategy. My response was, to a certain extent, generic and almost equivocal. I mentioned something along the lines of a plan or vision, that will promote an organization’s mission and be adaptable should the environment justify it. As I sat and pondered the general adequacy of my answers over the course of the half hour interview, I found myself ambivalent to most of them. While I was not overly dissatisfied with my definition of strategy, it struck me that I, as a business student, should have the answer engrained in me. Having studied strategy, I should know this. Having spent three years within the walls of business schools in North America and Asia, I should know this. I must have attended nearly three hundred lectures and scrutinized nearly one hundred case studies that could at least point me in the right direction. Have they taught me nothing? Have the teachings of Professor Calof – who I have tremendous respect for by the way, and I apologize to him if he ever reads this – taught me nothing? One thing I clearly remember from his class was the first lecture of the fall 2008 semester. During this class, in an effort to redeem a group of students that embarrassingly failed to answer another seemingly simple question, Professor Calof stated: “If one student gets it wrong, shame on them. If many students get it wrong, shame on the institution”. So in an attempt to blame this one on the institution, I set out to find what others would have responded to the question. My sample was quickly gathered and consisted of a few peers within my graduating class, my roommate who majors in religion, a professional consultant that coached me towards my first case competition and a few professors. Before I delve into detail about their answers, I would like to consider the textbook definition of strategy. Originally derived from the Greek general Strategos, the word carried a strict military meaning. In contrast to tactics, strategy addresses broader questions in order to achieve a goal (perhaps winning the war). Tactics would describe how to best fight the individual battles whereas strategy would consider the question of whether to fight the battle at all. So when did strategy become an appropriate term in business and economics? Are we suggesting that the global business environment is nothing more than a set of perpetual attacks in which victors must constantly look over their shoulder for the onset of emerging takeovers? Perhaps. What if there is no empirical evidence to suggest the opposite? As humans and professionals, is it in our nature to achieve personal success, or simply to achieve greater success than our peers? Perhaps I am on a tangent but I will keep this thought in mind. McKinsey & Company’s publishing division, The McKinsey Quarterly, offered some insight. In a roundtable discussion of Chief Strategic Officers, the role of a strategist was considered. While there was no clear definition offered, it could be understood that these high profile executives believed their role was merely a support of the CEO’s. The Chief Strategist explores the alternatives that would allow the company to make the appropriate steps in line with the CEO’s vision. What did my peers think of this? How would they have answered the question? There was little divergence in the answers. All the answers considered goals, mission, vision or a combination of all of them. One of my peers went so far as to define the goals as “realistic, achievable and ambitious”. Has strategy completely taken on a business meaning? Are we simply dealing with game theory strategy? Marketing strategy? Competitive strategy? Or is it fair to assume that the definition of strategy to a business student is merely his or her interpretation of a term that can address a much broader scope of activities? The perspective of a student that is not studying business shed some light on my question. The answer provided consisted of a plan to carry out optimal decision-making. The plan was stated as a “plan of attack”. Finally something outside the realm of mission, vision and goals! A personal coach of mine offered her insights as well. Her definition was stated as “the application of three elements to a given situation: logical analysis, creativity and instinct”. This answer was particularly pleasing to me. LOGIC! CREATIVITY! INSTINCT! These three terms that had not been addressed in upwards of ten definitions given so far. She too had graduated from a business school quite recently. Her few years in the real world seem to have taught her something that academia has not offered me or many of my peers so far. In no way am I making an attempt to actually ‘blame the institution’. I am merely addressing the mindset of the business schools that state ‘business above all’. The mindset that could explain why, during frosh week, business students wear shirts saying “you will all work for us”. Again, perhaps I digress. My point is this: as business students (myself included), we have extrapolated a narrow definition from a word that implies so much more. If we have trouble defining strategy, could it simply be because there need be no specific wording within the business context? What’s more, my coach’s definition showed what experience offered. Her success must stem in part from an effort to think beyond what school taught her. It is my sincere belief that to emerge successful from a business school, you need to demonstrate the ability to think unconventionally. In my final thoughts, I would like to address another question that was posed to me during the interview: “should we choose not to pursue your application any further, what would you do?” Should I not be successful, I could attribute it to a lack of unconventional thinking. Instead of answering with a focus on what my next move would be career-wise, I should have addressed the tweaks that I would make to myself. My own strategy if you will…


  1. A very interesting read Mr. Marr; well written...

  2. In the Art of War Sun Tzu said "Strategy without tactics is the slowest way to victory, but tactics without strategy ensures defeat."

    great post though Dave, I enjoyed reading it.