How to "Learn Strategy"
March 25, 2011 12:35 PM   Subscribe

How does one go about learning strategy (in general)?

Barring texts about war and chess, how does one become good at thinking about strategy or thinking strategically? Business and marketing would be obvious uses, but all the texts I find on business strategy and marketing seem to miss explaining how ones learns strategy before applying the ideas to those areas. Any ideas?
posted by rev- to Education (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Step 1: Know the difference between vision, strategy and tactics.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:46 PM on March 25, 2011

You can start by,

a) learning more about Michael Porter.

b) understanding the difference between vision(long-term) and goals(short-to-mid term)

c) reading the Harvard Business Review
posted by jchaw at 12:55 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Art of War was written about 2500 years ago and deals specifically with military strategy for that time period, but it's such a classic that it's been applied to just about every type of conflict from warfare, to business, to politics, since then. Interpret things metaphorically and it still contains brilliant strategic insights useful in just about every area of life.

But I think CPB is on to something in that you need to define your terms, though I wouldn't necessarily define them in the way the link does. In essence, the strategy/tactics distinction is the difference between the macro and micro levels. At root, I would suggest that the root of all strategy is first and foremost knowing what you want in the long run. It's impossible to think strategically without a goal.

Read Sun Tzu. Try to get your head around some of that. Read some commentaries if you like. Then start looking for applications.
posted by valkyryn at 1:03 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The only way to learn strategy is to practice strategy. Play games like chess which will give you a general idea that small sacrifices need to be made to move ahead. Generally though, every task must be handled through different strategies so it is hard to really learn strategy. It's mostly a matter of being able to size up the situation you are presented with as quickly and accurately as possible, then making up a plan to resolve the situation. Many types of mental exercises can be used to practice planning.
posted by JJ86 at 1:44 PM on March 25, 2011

I don't think you can learn strategy from a book, honestly. I also don't think you can learn strategy in the abstract. "Strategy" to me means the rules to the game -- and so you have to know more about the particular aspects of the game you're playing before you can learn the strategy. In my case, I never set out to learn strategy, but I got involved in a very specific legal field and just watched the game play out over and over in many cases, and learned that way.
posted by yarly at 2:24 PM on March 25, 2011

One book that you might find interesting is Thinking Strategically by Dixit and Nalebuff. (Amazon link here). They're both game theorists (game theory essentially comes down to the study of strategic interaction; more formally, "strategies" are just the options available to players), but the text is written for a broad audience and is very accessible. A little game theory goes a long way.
posted by dismas at 2:32 PM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Half the battle in strategy is understanding the right questions to ask. Study semiotics and information theory first.

And screw chess: backgammon is the game you want to master to understand strategy. In chess, you have only one opponent, while in backgammon you have chance thrown in. Chess is abstract; backgammon is an actual simulation.

Real life strategy necessarily includes accounting for chance. Play for money. You'll get remarkably better very quickly.
posted by digitalprimate at 3:20 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

From my experience - doing studies that require high levels of critical analysis (such as philosophy, psychology) and playing role-playing/strategy video games.
posted by mleigh at 3:32 PM on March 25, 2011

Broadly, strategy is about finding efficient ways of doing what you're trying to do.

Echoing above, turning that into something useful means knowing the field you're working in.

Less broadly, the three things that strategy ends up dealing with a lot are: a) your own logistics, b) options under conditions, c) outguessing opposition.

Your own logistics is knowing your stuff- organizing it. Knowing who works for you, getting them trained and being able to communicate clearly and efficiently. Getting a team to work reliably and fast. You'll notice this is a major concern for larger organizations- they want standardized resources and personnel - you want to send a team of X members with Y resources and know a given task will be done in Z time. It means you don't have to waste time waiting on things with indeterminate deadlines or researching why something isn't working.

Your options under conditions are highly dependent on the field and situation. You want to do things that will be effective - fast, cheap, good results. You can't get all 3, so you have to pick which of those matters the most, for this thing, right now. Can you do something that does more than one thing at once? Can you do something that will cover your rear if something fails? Which options that normally work, won't work here, now?

Outguessing opposition means predicting behavior to prevent problems, and to get ahead of them. Although we mostly think of this in terms of war or strategy games or Poker, this applies to stuff like, "How do we deter people from stealing from our store?" - predicting bad behavior before it happens. (Alternatively, one could be predicting people you want to work with- like "Where will people run to in an emergency? We need to know where to search first.") This is a combination of specific situational options and human psychology.

The easiest place to start is strategy games, and there's a lot to choose from - classics like Go, Backgammon, Othello, Poker, to modern games like Power Grid, Hellas, Small World, Agricola, Pandemic, Memoir '44, Confucius, and King of Siam.

The harder stuff is organizing projects, teams and groups. Look at what people do to plan weddings, events, or organize a film shoot or stage managing. Look at logistics. Look at software development plans. It's not just stuff, time and distance - it's teamwork, it's planning to work with situations out of your control.
posted by yeloson at 3:53 PM on March 25, 2011

Playing games!

I recommend RISK.

Definitely better with at least 3 players. Its about global domination. Good Times.

Also, the first Dune book taught me about strategy in geo-politics. Features the famous line, "I see Plans within Plans."
posted by jbenben at 6:24 PM on March 25, 2011

So, I mean, your question is about learning how to think strategically - yes?

I don't think you can skip training your mind to think critically, and I don't think it matters particularly what medium you use to start training yourself to think in that direction. Once you learn the basic principles, the application is universal.

There are pretty good discussions about this concerning what was once universally taught as a Classical Education. Once you had a Classical Education, you could use your own critucal thinking skills to teach yourself just about anything.

A Classical Education consists of the Trivium and the Quidrivium.

These two podcast interviews (scroll down the list) by Jan Irvin with educator John Taylor Gatto are excellent and all about the Trivium, Quadrivium, Logical Fallacies and why you need to understand these concepts to be a master at thinking, learning, and Life. It's Podcast # 068, and Podcast #069.
posted by jbenben at 6:44 PM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Trivium.

The Quadrivium.
posted by tel3path at 7:32 PM on March 25, 2011

"48 Laws of Power" another good book on the subject.
posted by Kale Slayer at 9:13 PM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Do you regularly set goals and try to accomplish them? Strategizing is all about how to get what you want. You have to practice by wanting stuff and then finding ways to get it. Some people are generally more satisfied with what they have, or don't believe they can get what they want so don't bother trying.

The more times you want something, then go about trying to get it, the better you will get.
posted by saraindc at 12:51 AM on March 26, 2011

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