by Henry Mintzberg
One of us tries to sort all this out. Seriously. Five different definitions of strategy; all begin with a P.
Strategy is a plan
To almost anyone you care to ask, strategy is a plan—some sort of consciously intended course of action, a guideline (or set of guidelines) to deal with a situation. A kid has a "strategy" to get over a fence, a corporation has one to capture a market. By this definition, strategies have two essential characteristics: They are developed consciously and purposefully.
Strategy is a ploy
As plan, a strategy can be a ploy, too, really just a specific "maneuver" intended to outwit an opponent or competitor. The kid may use the fence as a ploy to draw a bully into his yard, where his Doberman pincher awaits intruders. Likewise, a corporation may threaten to expand plant capacity to discourage a competitor from building a new plant. Here the real strategy (as plan, that is, the real intention) is the threat, not the expansion itself, and as such is a ploy.
Strategy is a pattern
But if strategies can be intended (whether as general plans or specific ploys), surely they can also be realized. In other words, defining strategy as a plan is not sufficient; we also need a definition that encompasses the resulting behavior. Thus a third definition is proposed: strategy is a pattern—specifically, a pattern in a stream of actions. By this definition, strategy is consistency in behavior, whether or not intended. To paraphrase Hume, strategies may result from human actions but not human designs. We can call this "emergent" strategy—where a pattern realized was not intended. Strategies, in other words, form as well as are formulated. So even good ones need not necessarily be conscious and purposeful.
Strategy is a position
Strategy is also a position—specifically, a means of locating an organization in its "environment." In ecological terms, strategy becomes a "niche"; in management terms, a product-market "domain." Position is usefully identified with respect to competitors (literally so in the military, where position becomes the site of the battle).
Strategy is a perspective
While position looks out, seeking to locate the organization in the external environment, perspective looks inside the organization, indeed inside the heads of the strategists. Here, strategy becomes the ingrained way of perceiving the world. Some organizations, for example, are aggressive pacesetters, while others build protective shells around themselves. Strategy in this respect is to the organization what personality is to the individual.
Each of these definitions adds important elements to our understanding of strategy, indeed encourages us to address fundamental questions about organizations in general. As plan, strategy deals with how leaders try to establish direction for organizations, to set them on predetermined courses of action. As ploy, strategy takes us into the realm of direct competition, where threats and feints and other maneuvers are employed to gain advantage. This places the process of strategy formation in its most dynamic setting, with moves provoking countermoves and so on. As pattern, strategy focuses on action, reminding us that the concept is an empty one if it does not take behavior into account. As position, strategy encourages us to look at organizations in context, specifically in their competitive environments—how they decide on their products and markets and protect them in order to meet competition, avoid it, or subvert it. And finally as perspective, strategy raises intriguing questions about intention and behavior in a collective context.
Source: © 1987, by The Regents of the University of California. Adapted from the California Management Review, "The Strategy Concept 1: Five Ps for Strategy" by Henry Mintzberg, Vol 30, No 1. By permission of the Regents.