Strategy is as old as war which, if you look in a dictionary, still crops up before business in any definition. ‘The art of war’ neatly sums up its military application, but management writers’ definitions are seldom as short. Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes, in their Exploring Corporate Strategy, offer: ‘Strategy is the direction and scope of an organization over the long-term: which achieves advantage for the organization through its configuration of resources within a challenging environment, to meet the needs of markets and to fulfill stakeholder expectations.’ Michael Porter is more succinct, and comes from a different angle: ‘Strategy has to do with what will make you unique’, he told an audience at the Wharton School recently.However you define it, strategy wasn’t a deliberate preoccupation of managers for many years. They thought and planned, and some tried to be different, but that was just part of running the business and wasn’t crystallized as ‘strategy’ much before the 1950s. Then, in 1965, H. Igor Ansoff published his Corporate Strategy, which brought the topic together with ‘strategic management’ – its formulation and implementation – to a much wider corporate audience.A rule for making decisions Acknowledged as the father of strategic management, Ansoff said that strategy was ‘a rule for making decisions’, and few would argue with that. He distinguished between objectives, which set the goals, and strategy, which set the path to the goals. And he believed firmly that ‘structure follows strategy’. Strategic decisions had to answer three fundamental questions:What are the firm’s objectives and goals?Should the firm diversify and, if so, into what and how vigorously?How should the firm develop and exploit its present product-market position?He flagged up an important issue that has bedevilled strategy formulation ever since, which is that most decisions are made inside a framework of limited resources. No matter how big or small the company, strategic decisions mean making choices between alternative resource commitments. Grow the existing business and forget diversification? Diversify and risk neglecting the existing business? ‘The object is to produce a resource-allocation pattern which will offer the best potential for meeting the firm’s objectives’, he says, and then shows how to do it.Ansoff set off an explosion in strategic planning, and soon everybody who was anybody had set up a corporate planning department that spun out sheaves of Soviet-style five-year forecasts and targets. While their day soon passed and Ansoff’s own ideas became less prescriptive (‘analysis is paralysis’ – he said it first), later thinkers still have a lot to thank him for. For those who don’t indulge in tomes on theory, he is best remembered for Ansoff’s product-market matrix, a still useful tool for deciding, strategically, how to expand the business. Its four possible strategies use different combinations of products and markets: market penetration, the safest strategy, is growing share of an existing market with an existing product; product development is selling new products to existing customers; market development is finding new customers for existing products; and diversification, the riskiest, is finding new markets for new products.Planning pipeline The corporate planning department may have folded its tent, but strategic planning remains an indispensable function. The process typically unfolds in this order:Mission statement and objectives – describe the company’s vision and define measurable financial and strategic objectives.Environmental scanning – gather internal and external information and analyse the firm, its industry and the wider environment. Stamping ground of the ‘five forces’ and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis.Strategy formulation – the hard part. Off-the-shelf ‘competitive advantage’, ‘core competence’, or do you really think from the inside out? Strategy implementation – the next hard part. Communicating the strategy, organizing resources and motivating the people to deliver it.Evaluation and control- measure, compare with the plan and adjust. Finding a ‘right’ or even a ‘good’ strategy is, of course, another matter entirely, though there is plenty of willing advice on hand. Michael Porter thinks head-on competition is a mistake. He says no one wins that sort of struggle, which often comes from setting out to be the ‘best’ in the industry. ‘Best’ is in the eye of the beholder. Better is to develop strategy around your unique place in the market.Porter is also dismissive of shareholder value as a corporate goal and calls it the Bermuda Triangle of strategy: ‘Shareholder value is a result. Shareholder value comes from creating superior economic performance.’ Operational effectiveness is not strategy but an extension of best practice. That can be good for performance, but hard to sustain – if it’s best practice, others will do it too. Richard Koch thinks that corporate strategy’s account may be operating in the red, and that over the last half century it has done more harm than good. This is not because it is a bad thing, but because it is invariably run from what he calls – and you can almost feel his lips tighten – ‘the Centre’. Most, though not all, Centers destroy more value than they create. They can be good at sorting out financial crises, identifying turning points, finding appropriate acquisitions and integrating them, and at carrying out some Boston matrix-style portfolio management. Apart from those, Koch says, strategy should be left to the business units.