The Basics of Strategy

The Origins of Strategy and Strategic Thought

Marc D. Sollosy


In 1934, Professor Gause of Moscow University published the results of a series of experiments that led to Gause's principle of competitive exclusion. This principle contends that no two species can coexist when they make their living in the identical way. When any pair, or more, of species compete for essential resources, sooner or later one will overcome the other. Without some form of intervening factor that helps to maintain equilibrium by providing each species an advantage in its own territory, only one of them will survive. For millions of years, this natural competition required no strategy. Survival was based upon the laws of probability. Strategy was not involved; rather, adaptation and survival of the fittest was the modus operandi. This pattern of survival exists for all living organisms.1

Gause's principle—that competitors making their living in the same way cannot coexist—explains the phenomenon of competition. Similar entities often required the same resources in order to exist. As competition among entities for these common resources became more intense, ways to achieve an advantage became increasingly important. Each entity needed to develop "something," a feature, survival mechanism, approach, or other means of differentiation, that provided it with a unique advantage. In the realm of human existence, competition first exhibited itself in the need to protect and preserve—to protect oneself and the other members of the clan from the elements and nature, and later from those who needed or coveted what they had. As the nature of man continued to change, there became an increased desire to use or possess what belonged to others. This often manifested itself in the form of forays into the territory, or raids on the possessions, of others. At first, these ventures were most likely conducted in a manner that was random and disorganized. As the powers of perception and cognitive abilities of human beings improved, the search for a "better way" began to emerge. This better way entailed the achievement of the desired result in a more efficient and effective manner. This desire for a better way was the very foundation of what was to become strategy.

The unique combination of acquired wisdom, craft, and later science, has led to the creation of strategy and its use as a much sought after skill. The utilization of strategy has changed the map of the world. Long before its application to commerce, it was responsible for the rise and fall of nations and their people. The "tap root" of what we know as strategy can be found in the history of the military arts. Looking back at this beginning provides the foundation for a more thorough understanding of the genesis of the discipline.


The beginning of organized forms of strategy sprang from the need for people either to defend themselves or to defeat their enemies. In keeping with the earlier extrapolation of Gause's principle, this is really a manifestation of competition between similar entities requiring the same resources. At the extreme, competition presents itself as warfare. Among the earliest acknowledged writings discussing the concepts of strategy is the Taoist Sun Tzu's The Art of War written around 400 BC. The title of the work is somewhat misleading in as much as the text addresses the concepts of strategy in a much broader fashion by also referencing public administration and planning. Although the text does outline theories of battle, it also delves into the area of diplomacy and the need to cultivate relationships with other nations as being essential to the overall well-being of a state.2

The word strategy is derived from the Greek word strategos, which actually translates as "general." As such, it was originally viewed in the more narrow confines as the "art of the general," or the "the art of arrangement" of troops.3,4 The term strategamata is the title of an early Latin work attributed to Frontius. It describes a collection of strategema, or stratagems, which literally translates as "tricks of war." The Romans are also credited with introducing the terms stragia in referring to the territories under the control of a military commander, and strategus, referring to a member of the council of war.5

Strategy as applied to the art of war was revolutionized at the time of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. Napoleon capitalized upon the advancements in armament technology and the lessening of the costs associated with the tools of war. He employed a brutally effective "strategy of annihilation" (read scorched earth) that placed little value on the mathematical perfection of geometric strategy. His goal was to achieve victory in the battlefield. His sole aim was the utter and total destruction of his opponent, usually achieving this success through the deployment of superior maneuvers.

The 19th century marked the beginning of a new era in warfare and by extension in the development of strategy. The most notable contributors of the time are Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and Antoine Jomini (1779-1869). Clausewitz's seminal work, On War,6 stressed the close relationship between war and national policy. He emphasized the importance of the principles of mass, economy of force, and the destruction of enemy forces. In contrast, Jomini focused on the occupation of enemy territory through a combination of carefully planned, rapid, and precise geometric maneuvers.

The 19th century was an era of far-reaching technological changes that radically altered the breadth and scope of both tactics and strategy. Railroads and steamships extended the volume, reach, and speed of mobilization. Telegraphic communications linked widening theaters of operations and by extension made large-scale strategy and tactics both possible and necessary. The impact of technology has only increased since the late 20th century, and will continue to increase as we proceed the 21st century.

Ultimately, the development of a strategy requires the ability to accept uncertainty. Strategists must come to accept that they will not have all of the information they need and will not be able to see the full spectrum of events. Yet they must be committed to creating and implementing strategy. Uncertainties exist, not only from incomplete information, but also as the result of the actions of a dynamic and thinking opponent. The design of a strategy with a specific opponent in mind and undetermined actions is what requires a strategist to accept, if not embrace, uncertainty. The inherent uncertainty associated with strategy is one of the key reasons why so many military and business leaders cling to the tangible world of tactics and options.

Strategy's roots in the military have had a significant impact upon their adoption and adaption in the world of business. Going as far back as the works of Sun Tzu in the period of 400 BC, one sees that strategy has been an important force in the shaping of political, sociological, and commercial landscapes. The origin of modern strategy and its evolution over time can be found in the writings mentioned above, and more demonstrably in military history's battles and wars. Moreover, the distinctions between strategy and tactics contribute to the military's great and unmistakable impact upon the development of the concept of strategy.7

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