Strategy

STRATEGY comes directly from the Greek strategía – “the office or command of a general” – and for centuries had clung loyally to that military meaning, until the dawn of the Industrial Age and all its perversions.

Even then, until well into this century, the word preserved some consciousness of its high calling and, most important, of the crucial military distinction between STRATEGY and TACTICS. Even in the terms’ most metaphorical applications, until recently, the two meanings knew their rank and kept their place. “Etymologically,” as H. W. Fowler summed it up in 1926, “STRATEGY is generalship, and TACTICS is array.”

That distinction-if only it were preserved with any kind of integrity-would in fact allow STRATEGY to perform useful service far outside a military context. Like many retired generals, STRATEGY has a place in public service, so long as it does not pretend to be what it is not. In the social sciences, for example, there is great benefit to discussing and charting the broad movements of resources toward carefully selected targets and goals, by contrast with the on-the-ground deployment of those resources in particular places, numbers, and circumstances. The former is what’s meant by STRATEGY; the latter is TACTICS. But, rather like PARAMETER, STRATEGY has been conscripted into doing its brother’s work. By now, virtually every decision, large or small, general or local, pins stars on its shoulders and struts about claiming to be STRATEGIC.

Many foundations and government agencies (perhaps envying the decisive world of armed combat, where an enemy once vanquished usually remains dead) have taken up STRATEGY with the giddiness of a soldier on leave. At its worst, STRATEGY in foundation parlance refers to transparently tactical decisions about particular grants, recipients, amounts, and points of intervention. A while ago, for example, a foundation “strategy” paper lamented that community organizations and foundations “often do not think through strategies for leveraging additional support, or how to sustain needed funding up front.” Discussing what such “strategies” might be, the paper talks about better performance measurement, avenues of accountability, and matching funding requests to outcomes. Those are indispensable calculations, but they are tactical, not strategic. They concern how to array and command forces more effectively according to an already-determined battle plan, against an already-determined target.

But the main problem with STRATEGY is not that it is too often misapplied. Rather, like many retired generals of recent years, it has developed an aura of indispensability and universal relevance that grows wearisome even when it is not really out-of-place. It is possible – and indeed, for centuries it was normal – to discuss plans, goals, and resources without invoking STRATEGY at all. Because the word is becoming obligatory in many circles-such that no planning discussion is regarded as complete without it-the use of STRATEGY needs to be treated with the greatest distrust. It should, in fact, be treated the way the U.S. Constitution treats all generals-subject, ultimately, to a civilian review, answerable to ordinary people who are less at home with the argot of the war room and more likely to want their information in plain speech.

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