Here’s why these debates about the definition of “strategy” are so dumb

The other day, I did a post about how pointless it is to argue about definitions of terms like “strategy”, and how it’s better instead to just say what you mean.

I think you can guess what happened next.

The comments section, naturally, became furious debating shop over the definitions of such terms.  So I guess my point was a bit lost on some.

However the overall point wasn’t lost on me, namely:

People really care about definitions.

They are passionate about them, especially apparently “strategy people”.  And to be fair, the stakes are indeed quite high.  Vast amounts of confusion, conflict, and cost are generated by people talking past each other, simply because they have different interpretations of certain words in their heads – “strategy” probably being chief among them.

It is a problem, no doubt.

So, what are the chances we can solve this problem here, in this newsletter?


Of course, we can go through the motions of defining strategy, but it’s not like the whole world is going to fall behind it.  You’re still going to have the same annoying, garbled, unproductive discussions.  That, I cannot save you from.

But there is one thing we can do.

We can look at the two major “schools” of strategy definition and explain how they interconnect.  Then, when you’re having these discussions, you’ll be able pinpoint where the other person is coming from, and quickly find common ground.

It’s a bit boring, a bit “wonkish”, but more useful I think than just reiterating my own personal definition of the term.

Sound good?  Then here we go.

First, let me define the two schools:

  1. The action school
  2. The value school

The first is the one you’ll hear most commonly, and it will sound something like this:

“A strategy is the set of unique choices you make”.

“Choice” is a big word in this way of thinking, as are things like “policies” or “decisions”.  Anything that boils down to the things that you are going to do.  This, I suppose, is why it is the most popular form of definition, because everyone more or less understands that a strategy is something you “do” (and then bunging the word unique in there gives it an extra layer of sophistication).

The second school, however, has a different point of focus – value.  This is the definition I favour, and you’ll hear it defined something like:

“A strategy is the value you offer that people want, but cannot get elsewhere”.

Or, simply, “unique value”.

This one is somewhat more controversial because it tends to get mixed up with comms terms such as “value proposition”.  This, in fact, is the most common and angry criticism I receive online – people telling me that I am “actually” talking about a value proposition, not strategy.

To be clear, these people are wrong, but it’s an incredibly easy mistake to make.

You see a “value proposition” is generally a tool used to describe the value of something in marketing comms.  In that respect it is developed after the business as a whole is developed.  It is a “wrapper” used to sell something.  However unique value in the strategy sense is the decision over what the business is going to do in the first place.  What it is going to produce that is going to give it leverage in the market.  So it is the first decision in the business process, not the last.

A very subtle, but very important distinction.

Anyway, there you have the two.  On the face of it, they seem quite different, but here’s the thing:

They are exactly the same.

…only they deal with two different pieces of the overall strategy process:

  • The action definition describes the “things you are going to do”.
  • The value definition describes “the idea towards which those things are directed”.

You have the “idea” (value).  And you have the “execution” (actions).

Honestly this really is common sensical, but for whatever reason people really struggle with it.  You cannot have a set of “unique choices” which are totally arbitrary.  There must be some sort of unifying thought which determines what those choices are (i.e. the value).  And, of course, you cannot have some airy-fairy expression of value without that being manifested in specific, hard, differentiated decisions (i.e. the action).

You actually see quite a lot of shoddy strategies falling into both of these traps:

  • You see clear practical decisions being made without any actual leverage or value-based thought behind them (e.g. “our strategy is to open 5 new branches!”)
  • And you also see a lot of value statements that are impossible to convert into specific action (e.g. “our strategy is to deliver the extraordinary!”)

Now the reason I favour the value definition in my general spiel is because it is “higher” than the action one.  The value decision comes first, the actions second.  However it should always be obvious (and maybe it isn’t…) that the value needs to be manifested in unique action.

I suppose if you want to be a really annoying pedant, you could join the two in order to have “one definition that rules them all”:

“A strategy is the set of unique choices you make in order to deliver a particular form of value to customers that they can’t get anywhere else”.

Try it at a dinner party, or on a hot date.

Or failing that, simply keep it in your head, and remember the ridiculously basic principle: you have the stuff you’re going to do, and the reason you’re going to do it.

This is all it takes!  All it takes to make a mockery of all this pointless intellectualising and debate, and to press forward to what we’re really trying do here:

Make big moves, and escape the competition.

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