What is more vital to success, executing strategy or achieving goals?

Too many battles have been lost and business efforts failed because people are confused about these basic concepts. An excellent strategy does not guarantee success anymore than does achieving a goal. Success is an ephemeral or emergent idea than cannot be achieved with strictly linear concepts such as goal or strategy. Goals and strategy must interact within the confines of a system to create success. The two are intricately intertwined and cannot be easily separated.

To begin defining the relationship, we must understand that success is a goal in itself. Success is an end-state that we seek to achieve. Sometimes with great clarity more often as a vague ephemeral image that is difficult to pin down. Sometimes we as individuals define this end-state but more often it is defined for us by the systems in which we interact. For instance the General with all of his power and authority does not define the end-state he is tasked with achieving.

The political authority, to which the General reports, defines the context in which the General operates. First the political authority provides a goal that the General is to achieve. Many writers of military strategy blindly assume that the goal is always military victory. However, generals from the Vietnam War and the Korean Conflict would readily tell you that they were not tasked with complete military victory. The political authority defines goals for the military, and it is not always winning a particular battle or war militarily. Many times military operations are simply tactics deployed by politicians to achieve political goals.

Carl von Clausewitz tells us that “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of policy carried out by other means.” What Clausewitz is telling us is that war and the actions of the General are performed within the context of a larger system, the political system. War is simply one of the tactics available to the leaders of political systems and can be employed to achieve any number of political goals that do not involve military victory.

Following the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, U.S. Military Generals have realized the importance of this context in which they operate and have demanded with more or less success that the political leadership provide clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable objectives or goals for every military action . Only with the specific goal identified can Generals begin developing a specific strategy to achieve the goal. So the relationship is defined as follows “strategy is the means to achieve a goal.” Evidence of this can be found in the U.S. Army Field Manual, FM1.

2-18 The Armed Forces of the United States execute the National Military Strategy within the context of the National Security and National Defense Strategies. The National Military Strategy establishes the following interrelated military objectives:

  • Protect the United States against external attacks and aggression
  • Prevent conflict and surprise attack
  • Prevail against adversarie

These objectives guide military contributions to national defense and ultimately to the accomplishment of the national security goals.

It is of course more complex than that in that the first thing the strategist must do is to define more granular goals or objectives that if achieved will add up to achievement of the goal assigned. Goal definition and strategy creation is therefore an iterative process that always begins with the goal in mind and continues until the point where there can be no more granular goal, only execution. This idea increases the scope of who is considered a strategist to a very large group. Any purposeful actor who defines granular goals in order to achieve a higher order goal is acting as a strategist.

Many writers will confuse the issue by writing strategies as goals. One way to identify this is to evaluate what is being described. If it is an “end-state” that is being described then it is a goal. The goal is the result that we are trying to achieve. If it is a method of achieving the end-state that is being described then it is a strategy. The method will most likely include a set of end-states that when combined represent the higher order end-state desired. Strategies should also include actions and sequences of actions required to achieve the end-states.

Strategy is a comprehensive concept that is not limited to politics, the military, or senior level businessmen. Strategy is increasingly a concept that is needed by everyone. As the world becomes more specialized and abstract, individuals at every level of life need to develop methods for survival and prosperity. Likewise large organizations that once survived and prospered with a single high level strategy and strict “command and control” execution are falling by the wayside.

More and more successful organizations are required to operate with a speed and tempo that cannot be managed through command and control. More and more individuals are being asked to take on complex challenges, make appropriate decisions, and execute successfully in a manner that supports the overall organization. Globalization requires that organizations must respond to many situations that senior executives can’t possibly be aware of nor have knowledge of. Organizations in this type of environment must move from command and control to coordinated autonomy as an organizing principle.

An example of this in popular culture is the television show “Undercover Boss” where a young founder/owner of a shipping company decided to perform the different job tasks in the company posing as a regular applicant. He found that his employees had employed some techniques in their jobs that increased efficiency that he had no prior knowledge of. One female employee was sticking labels on her arm that she could scan as she sorted boxes which in turn increased her productivity by approximately 25% over the others. She was able to do this because she knew what goal needed to be achieved. She also knew how her work affected the next step in the company process. This employee clearly had the “freedom of a strategist.”

To survive in this new world, senior leaders must develop strategic thinkers at all levels of the organization. They must ensure that the organization provides a sound governing context to guide the decisions of their many strategists. And they must become proficient at creating and articulating goals that focus the actions of a diverse organization while simultaneously providing context in which strategy can be formulated and executed at many levels to respond to the diverse challenges facing organizations today.

In this new and changing world it is becoming more and more important to discuss strategy in its comprehensive form, separating the practice of strategy from the professions that employ it and to provide a universal framework for its application. An urgent need in this area is to clearly define how strategy operates in a manner that is generally applicable. We can no longer afford to invest entire careers developing strategists for specific fields. We must make strategy accessible at every level of the career ladder and make it a discipline that is applicable across many fields. This requires clear and rigorous articulation of what strategy is and what a strategist does without resorting to specific examples or principles of execution.

In this vein, I propose that a universal definition of strategy must begin with the idea of strategy as a method of achieving a goal. The reason we employ strategy is to increase the likelihood that goals will be achieved. Further, to be a strategist one must have the freedom of action to identify and pursue subordinate goals towards this purpose.

Copyright 2010, Ron B Palmer