What is strategy and how do you know if you have one?

The chasm at the heart of our knowledge of strategy, argues Costas Markides, requires a return to fundamentals.


What is strategy, really? Despite the obvious importance of a superior strategy to the success of an organisation and despite decades of research on the subject, there is little agreement among academics as to what strategy really is. From notions of strategy as positioning to strategy as visioning, several possible definitions are fighting for legitimacy. Lack of an acceptable definition has opened up the field to an invasion of sexy slogans and terms, all of which add to the confusion and state of unease.

Not that the confusion is restricted to academics. If asked, most practising executives would define strategy as “how I could achieve my company’s objectives”. Although this definition is technically correct, it is so general that it is practically meaningless.

Needless to say, this state of affairs is unfortunate. Perhaps nothing highlights better the sad (comical?) state of affairs surrounding strategy than the following.

In November 1996, the most prominent strategy academic, Michael Porter of Harvard, published a Harvard Business Review article grandly entitled “What is strategy?” (Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1996).This was followed only a few months later by another famous academic, Gary Hamel of London Business School, with an equally impressively titled article, “The search for strategy”(London Business School working paper, 1997). That after 40 years of academic research on the subject, two of the most prominent academics in the field felt the need to go out of their way and start searching for strategy goes to show how much confusion we have managed to create regarding such a crucial business decision.

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