What is strategy? The etymology of the word has two parts with PIE roots – strategos was Greek for ‘general’, or the art of the general, and it was a combination of ‘stra-‘ (stretch, structure, stratos, strong, stride, strict) and ‘ag-‘ (agility, act).

Here are some definitions from acaemics, according to wikipedia:

  • “A pattern in a stream of decisions” – Henry Mintzberg from McGill University
  • “Strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means” -Max McKeown (2011)
  • “A system of finding, formulating, and developing a doctrine that will ensure long-term success if followed faithfully. – Dr. Vladimir Kvint

What’s the difference between a strategy and a philosophy?

A philosophy is about inquiry, about a sense of how things work, how the world works, an idea how things should be. It’s about ideals. A philosophy is embodied, a strategy is enacted, executed.

What’s the difference between a strategy and a principle?

What are principles, anyway? I can think of two definitions. One describes axiomatic truths or fundamentals – ie principles of design, principles of music. They’re kind of like rules, but maybe less dogmatic. We mean different things when we say “he is a man of philosophy”, “he is a man of principle”, “he is a man of rules(?)”, he is a man of discipline. Each thing means something slightly different in a very subtle way.

The other thing about principles – I’m thinking about Ray Dalio now, who has his principles published at He describes principles as concepts that can be applied over and over again in similar circumstances. There are parenting principles, management principles, skiing principles and so on.

What’s the difference between a strategy and a plan?

Casually, I find that people often use the phrase “so what’s the plan?” when discussing something that’s to happen next. What’s the plan for the dinner party tonight? People make weekend plans. (In contrast, people tend to have a ‘life philosophy.’ We tend to ask “what’s your philosophy…” over drinks in the evenings.)

Sometimes we ask, what’s your plan for the future? What’s your plan for the next 5 years? But those tend to be grasping at straws a little, and we don’t expect people to have great answers to those things.

I find it interesting to think about when we ask questions like “what’s your strategy”. I’ve definitely asked it before – I think when people tell me that they intend to make something, implement something, when they want to become something. You want to become a successful writer? What’s your strategy?

It seems to me then that strategy is all about implementation. You embody your philosophy and then execute your strategy, which will involve making plans and so on. The strategist figures out what to do, and what she will do if things change. She will identify what is important and what is not important, what to do with the limited resources that she has, and how to deploy them.

Diagnosis -> Guiding Policy -> Action Plan

President Kennedy illustrated these three elements of strategy in his Cuban Missile Crisis Address to the Nation of 22 October 1962:

Diagnosis: “This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites are now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

Guiding Policy: “Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere.”

Action Plans: First among seven numbered steps was the following: “To halt this offensive buildup a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”

Plan, Pattern, Position,  Ploy, Perspective

Henry Mintzberg described five definitions of strategy in 1998:

  1. Strategy as plan – a directed course of action to achieve an intended set of goals; similar to the strategic planning concept;
  2. Strategy as pattern – a consistent pattern of past behavior, with a strategy realized over time rather than planned or intended. Where the realized pattern was different from the intent, he referred to the strategy as emergent;
  3. Strategy as position – locating brands, products, or companies within the market, based on the conceptual framework of consumers or other stakeholders; a strategy determined primarily by factors outside the firm;
  4. Strategy as ploy – a specific maneuver intended to outwit a competitor; and
  5. Strategy as perspective – executing strategy based on a “theory of the business” or natural extension of the mindset or ideological perspective of the organization.

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