A career in business journalism may not sound that entrepreneurial, but for me it was good preparation. Corporate strategy was much in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s, with a new focus from business schools, executive suites and newly minted strategy gurus. During these years, I interviewed hundreds of companies, spoke to academics, lunched with management consultants, attended seminars and faithfully read each flavour-of-the-month strategy book as it rolled off the press.
I gradually discovered what a rare thing real strategy is in the business world. Brilliant exceptions exist (more so among entrepreneurs than corporate titans), but wading through all the flow charts, lofty but vague goals and regurgitated mission statements rarely produced that aha! realization of encountering a clear strategy. Somehow the essence—the central hypothesis on how to achieve the goal—gets lost in an increasingly complex strategic process.
For a purer understanding of strategy, I gravitated to military examples. Corporations can hide a bad strategy (or no strategy) for years while market realities gradually erode them (General Motors being a recent example). Military battles, on the other hand, tend to be over more quickly and the superior strategy revealed. A good military strategy can usually be articulated in a phrase or sentence of crystal clarity. Take Carthaginian general Hannibal’s “envelopment” of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, which eliminated the Romans’ superiority in numbers by forcing them to use only a small portion of troops at any one time. U.S. General Schwarzkopf’s “left hook” strategy used in Desert Storm in 1991, bypassed Iraqi defences in Kuwait and went straight for the Iraqi homeland, ending the war in a matter of days.
But whether the example is military, business, the martial arts or simply a good chess game, the guiding principle of a good strategy boils down to this simple rule: bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness. In the 1920s, a British military theorist, Liddell Hart (who happened to be another journalist), articulated this principle further in a famous work called Strategy. In it, he developed the theory of the “indirect approach” and analyzed how military commanders through the ages—including Alexander the Great, Cromwell and Napoleon—chose the line of least expectation and struck at the point of least resistance.