Strategy: These ARE the ends you’re looking for

July 21, 2014

In response to B.J. Armstrong’s thought-provoking piece on these pixels last week, I offer a contrary view. There are plenty of “ends” out there—we have a National Security Strategy, a National Defense Strategy, a Defense Strategic Guidance, a Strategic Choices Management Review, a Quadrennial Defense Review, and a National Military Strategy. Pick a couple “ends”, explain that they are policy objectives (or higher command’s “ends”) and start writing!  No less an authority than Richard Rumelt said that the kernel of strategy contains three main elements: 1) a diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge; 2) a guiding policy for dealing with the challenge; and 3) coherent actions designed to carry out the guiding policy. Rumelt also wisely cautions about the error of “mistaking goals for strategy”.

Others have viewed it as explaining the Why, the What, and the How.  For a secondary (or even tertiary) echelon like a single Service like the United States Navy, the Why should already exist in numerous forms; the What, then, is the real meat; and the How should be left for the operational elements.

Semantics may play, but that’s why if you truly own the narrative, you define the terms of reference and set the taxonomy, and frame it however you like.  Perhaps, as Frank Hoffman has advised, the ensuing USN tome should be called a Maritime White Paper instead of a “strategy”…but you are still, as B.H. Liddell Hart described it, dabbling in “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”

Further, as DoD continues to have a fascination with business world analogies, two leading figures in strategic thought have defined “strategy” as:

Alfred Chandler: the “determination of the basic long-term goals of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals.”

Michael Porter: the “broad formula for how a business is going to compete, what its goals should be, and what policies will be needed to carry out those goals” and the “…combination of the ends for which the firm is striving and the means by which it is seeking to get there.”

And this is from someone (me) who doesn’t necessarily buy into the ends/ways/means approach as the only or at times even best methodology—instead, I prefer scenario-based planning and the use of multiple futures and stress-testing to produce a portfolio of capabilities designed to protect/further/advance vital national interests.  The crafting of strategy then takes into account how to incorporate these capabilities as part of Rumelt’s “coherent actions” designed to achieve the policy aims. Of course, this implies that these vital national interests have already been clearly articulated, but that is for another conversation.

But if done correctly, and then articulated completely (up, out, and down), there is more than one path to strategic nirvana.


CDR Elton C. Parker III is currently serving as the Special Assistant to the President and Military Assistant to the Provost of National Defense University.  A career naval aviator, his most recent tour was as Speechwriter and Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views, opinions, or positions of the National Defense University, The U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: John Morgan