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This is part of a series of articles about the language of strategy.  We cannot have a discussion about strategy, and the related subject of tactics, without a military element.

As we know, our word strategy has its origins in Ancient Greek. It derives from the Greek Strategos for a leader of an army, and strategeo, to command an army.

So much of writing about strategy before this century comes from the military context of china Sun Tzu, the art of war, and Von Clausewitz, On War.  Both are available in various translations.

Means and Ends

A really useful military distinction is between means and ends.  Means are the resources and methods used to achieve the strategy.  Ends are the objectives.

This distinction between means and ends is rarely used in organisational context.  It is a shame, because it helps to clarify what needs to be achieved and what is required for it to be achieved. The means can be the how it will be achieved as well as the resources required.

The problem occurs where organisations fail to give enough consideration to means, and only talk about what should be achieved, without a rich analysis of the various required means.  When this occurs we call it “Strategy by hope and magic“).

Strategy vs tactics

It is useful to draw a distinction between strategy and tactics.  The strategy is the board, persistent movement or campaign plan. Tactics are irregular methods applied to overcome and achieve specific objectives.  Being tactical is to apply a particular approach to a particular problem or objective.  Being strategic is looking at the wider picture.

The US marine manual “MCDP1-3 Tactics” (Opens in a new page) describes tactics as “The art and science of winning engagements in battles”.   Later the US Marine manual describes the importance of decisions and being decisive: “Tactics is the employment of units in combat. The objective of tactics is to achieve military success through a decision in battle. Using tactical actions to achieve a decision is central to Marine Corps tactics.”  Note the use of tactical actions to achieve decisions that are decisive (we will return to this).

I like to think that tactics are in the toolkit for use when necessary, to achieve particular ends in particular engagements. However, they are not the overall strategy.

The Military Mission

In military terms, a mission generally refers to a specific operation.  The mission might be to capture a particular area of land.  It defines the purpose of the activity. It is consistent with mission as that set out to be achieved by a missionary, travelling with a purpose.

It is worth contrasting this military use of mission as an operation, with today’s organisational use of mission.

  • The military use of mission is for a specific operation. The military operational mission is a shorter term activity with a purpose.
  • The general use of organisational mission today, is a much wider statement of long term purpose.

Of course a military unit or a service (army, air force, navy) may exist with a wider organisational mission or purpose.  However, the more common military mission is the purpose of the operation.

Strategy and campaign

The military will refer to a campaign.  A series of battles and engagements over a period or area.  For instance, in the second world war there were various campaigns including in the desert, the Far East, the Pacific, Burma, Northern Europe and the Eastern front.

Campaigns will have a series of inter-related battles and engagements with various manoeuvrers over time.  There might be an overall strategy, or a series of strategies at various times in the campaign, depending on how it has developed.

In organisational use, we only refer to campaigns in an advertising context.  However, we might see a campaign as a series of strategies evolving over a period for a wider business or organisational objective.

Taking military metaphors too far: a word of warning

It is worth being aware of, and bearing in mind,  the metaphors and language that is in use amongst a particular group of Executives or managers.  It used to be very popular to talk about defeating the competition, fighting for customers and dominating markets.  In other words the language of ‘strategy’ was dominated by the idea of competition, fighting and winning.  A very traditional military language.

In contrast, much of strategy today is about collaboration, partnership and exploring new opportunities.  Of course, even in a military context there is still collaboration amongst units, amongst services (naval, air force, intelligence) and between serving forces in various nations.  There always has been, there still is, and there always will be.  Do be aware, that the metaphors and language in use, can reveal something of the mindset, assumptions and approach of those involved.