Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters

by Richard P. Rumelt

Good StrategyServing in a Combatant Command has given me a unique opportunity to see how our military strategy is developed at the highest levels.  Rumelt’s book provides a clear and accessible methodology for developing strategy that is applicable to military strategists. Interestingly, his recommendations encompass much of what we already have in doctrine for operational design.

Rumelt describes a good strategy as one that defines/explains the nature of the challenge, contains a guiding policy for dealing with the challenge, and outlines a set of coherent and complementary actions that carry out the guiding policy. A strategy is a hypothesis, its implementation is an experiment, and it must be constantly assessed and adjusted to achieve the desired end state.

A bad strategy doesn’t face the true challenge and ignores critical issues. Bad strategies just outline goals without specifying the objectives required to achieve those goals. Military strategies often fall prey to this; for example, establishing good governance is often described as a goal (or an endstate) without clear objectives laid out to achieve “good governance,” a clear description of what “good governance” means, or how achieving this goal addresses the nature of the challenge. Objectives that don’t address the critical issue, are impractical, or unnecessarily complex are other indicators of a bad strategy.

A good strategy defines the critical challenge clearly and forcefully. JFK’s 1961 “Man on the Moon” speech is an excellent example of a clear challenge and a guiding policy.  Good strategies also focus resources on one or a few pivotal objectives – you can’t do everything, but must prioritize.  They create a competitive advantage for the organization by leveraging strengths and competencies and impose exorbitant or unsustainable costs on the competition with minimal/lesser investment.  Finally, strategies must constantly be reviewed, assessed, and updated.

A strong leader is essential to creating, implementing, and guiding good strategy.  A good strategist knows how to focus his/her attention from the what is being done, to the why it is being done.  He/she is able to question his/her own judgments and develop true alternatives to initial thoughts and strategies.  Lastly, it is important to commit judgments to writing to help with evaluation of the strategy and to continually improve as a strategist.

Points to Ponder:

  1. Do our current “strategies” for Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosis the challenge, contain a guiding policy, and outline coordinated objectives?
  2. What opportunities do we (the U.S. and CENTCOM) have to leverage our distinctive competencies to develop a competitive advantage over Iran or Russia?
  3. In an administration that understands business terms, how do we “sell” our strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of competitive advantage?
  4. What are our distinctive competencies against Iran and Russia?



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