Define stuff

Define stuff

Mar 4, 2019

If someone starts a phrase with “strategy is about … ,” assume that what comes next is hot air.

Because three phrases later, strategy will be about something else. And three phrases after that, it will be about something else. So, what is strategy about, then? The answer will be all of the above but in different ways. Murky ways. None of that is helpful.

So, new rule: don’t tell me what strategy is about, tell me what strategy is.

Don’t tell me what strategy is about, tell me what it is

Take a best seller on the subject that shall remain unnamed but referenced below. The book is excellent in various aspects. But no clear and consistent definition of its core theme, strategy, isn't one.

In fact, the author’s keeps on explaining not what strategy is but what it is about. “Strategy is about how an organization will move forward” (p. 6). But “strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does” (p. 20), “strategy is about very difficult yet very important issues” (p. 266), and “strategy is about action, about doing something” (p. 87). Of course, “strategy is primarily about deciding what is truly important,“ (p. 90) and t the core, strategy is about focus” (p. 150).

Got all that? Because I don't. Forgive me, I’m a simple guy, I need guidance and clarity. And the vague declarations aren't providing either.

To be fair, this reliance on telling what things are about is not a limitation of this particular book, it permeates the entire field. “Strategy is not primarily about planning. It is about intentional, informed, and integrated choices.” This is as helpful to me as explaining me what living is by telling me “living is about eating well.” And yet, this is from one of the defining articles on the topic (also anonymously cited here but referenced at the bottom).

And we can continue the extrapolation: the about-reliance isn’t limited to strategy. Ever wondered what leadership is?

“Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behavior.” The phrase comes from an article whose author complains that people still confuse management and leadership. I apologize, but that phrase isn’t giving me any more clarity on the difference. Count me among the confused ones.

And then again we can step back. Agility, design, customer experience … The list is endless. Once you start not letting people get away with a definition that relies on “about,” you see that everyone does it.

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If a concept is central to your project, define it clearly.

Set the ground for a productive exchange by defining stuff

At Rice, Kevin Kirby taught a course on leadership in higher education and used Joseph Rost’s definition of leadership: “An influence relationship, among leaders and followers, who intend real changes, that reflect their mutual purposes.“ Although probably not ideal—defining leadership using the word "leaders" is, arguably, getting dangerously close to being cyclical—this definition provided a shared understanding of what leadership was for the course.

Now, I concede that this definition won’t work for many leadership experts. In fact, it might not work for most! But is there a definition of leadership that they would all agree on? Is there one for strategy? So your options seem to come down to: -1- find a definition that works for all (estimated time: at least one academic career); -2- remain vague, using about copiously; or -3- clearly state your definition, acknowledging that it won’t work for all, but that it is the one you’ll use for your setting.

This is not just semantics or rhetorical preference. A clear definition is the common ground on which you and your team can critically pressure-test ideas and create better alternatives. In Kevin’s leadership style, he would sometimes make an assertion, a student would disagree saying, “well, it depends on how you define leadership, doesn’t it?” and invariably Kevin would bring back his definition. That helped a diverse group with diverse assumptions stay focused. I see the same benefits when I present a problem frame that clearly –1– delineates the problem I propose to solve; -2- identifies the project team and the broader stakeholders; and -3- defines the logistics (how much time, money, other resources we’ll invest). Team members might disagree with the content of the frame, but there's no ambiguity as to what we're talking about—we have a shared understanding.

This shared understanding is the foundation that supports all of what we do later. So, either we use clear definitions, or we remain vague and allow for moving goal posts. If the latter, I suggest you use about copiously, get some nice Bordeaux, and bring in a couple of French guys. Expect a late night, lots of smoke, and a difficult morning after as you “refaites le monde” with lots of arguing and little progress. French people have elevated the exercise to an art form and and national sport. And it’s an enjoyable one, but it’s just not the one you should play if you want to move forward. And it’s probably not the one you’re paid to play.

Oh, and my definition of strategy, you ask? A strategy is a plan of action to achieve an overall objective. Setting a strategy is, therefore, choosing which plan of action to follow. Feel free to disagree with it; I’ll be happy for us to argue. As we do so, you might convince me that this definition needs to change. None of that is a problem. But by defining clearly what I mean, I’ve made my position clear and, hopefully, enabled this vigorous and constructive exchange of ideas.


Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 35–36, pp. 21–45.

Hambrick, D. C. and M. P. Fredrickson (2005). "Are you sure you have a strategy?"  
19(4): 51-62.

Kotter, J. P. (2013). "Management is (still) not leadership." Harvard business review

Rost, J. C. (1993). Leadership for the twenty-first century, Greenwood Publishing Group.

Rumelt, R. P. (2012). "Good strategy/bad strategy: The difference and why it matters." Strategic Direction