Strategy

Posted 4 months, 2 weeks ago | Originally written on 30 Jan 2024

I've come across the word 'strategy' quite a bit over the last few weeks and it just got me thinking: what does it mean? How is strategy different from other conventional thinking?

I tend to think of strategy in the context of chess. Strategy is often pitted against tactics. Strategy has to do with broad strokes while tactics refers to actual actions that one can take. For example, one can say that their strategy is to weaken the opponent's kingside by attacking a weak pawn such as the f-pawn. I'm no expert but the theory goes that since this is the only pawn solely protected by the opponent's king then a backed attacked (e.g. knight backed by bishop) restricts the king's moves. This is strategy - a broad idea based on some fundamental knowledge. A tactic, on the hand has a well-defined name, such as a fork or skewer that can be performed by virtually any piece on any of the opponent's pieces. In other words, tactics are well defined moves while strategies are knowledge-defined ideas.

I recall watching a riveting set of videos of Gary Kasparov and (at the time) former world champion, Anatoly Karpov as they discussed games from the championship which Kasparov won. He repeated referred to 'ideas', abstract representations of a game that is difficult enough without invoking the sense that one can perceive means of expression on the chessboard. Indeed, these are the strides of individuals who are steeped in the game and have a commanding view of all the hidden opportunities that lurk in plain sight. Again, this reference to 'ideas' hints at strategy: insights about the situation that may be exploited towards a particular end - in this case, checkmate.

From these isolated references, I think there is enough to build an understanding of what strategy is. Let's outline some ideas on where we think strategy would take us:

  1. Behind every strategy is the notion of domain understanding. Anyone who formulates a strategy is leveraging some knowledge of the domain to achieve some objective. The objective may be singular or may consist of multiple targets. It may be that the multiple targets emerge from some capabilities, or some unifying theme.
  2. The outcome is always advantageous for the strategist. This does not necessarily mean that the outcome is good but beneficial for the strategist. We will assume good intentions and not dwell much on this point.
  3. The strategy involves a series of actions to take, broad strokes, which position the individual, group or organisation for the success in (2).
  4. Unlike a tactic, which is positional and instantaneous i.e. act here now or never, strategies have a wider action window. Conditions usually remain ripe for longer periods of time.

Domain Understanding

I would like to dwell more on this point because I believe it is at the heart of strategy. It seems to me that the formal description of this domain understanding is best encapsulated as a theory of knowledge. The strategist has spent time observing events in the domain and, over time, has observed relationships between causes and their resulting effects. Therefore, given a particular (possibly new) intended outcome, he begins to devise a way in which to exploit the prevailing causalities towards that end. Clearly, there may not be a direct causal relationship between the available causes and the intended effects and it is the strategist's ingenuity to assemble these in such as a way that the intended effect emerges.

In a word, strategy is creatively using available resources to produce (possibly new) desirable outcomes.