Crafting a 'Good' Strategy

By Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

This conclusion matches with experience in the corporate world. Henry Mintzberg, an international management expert, observed that the whole nature of strategy-making was “dynamic, irregular, discontinuous, calling for groping, interactive processes with an emphasis on learning and synthesis.” 4 He found the real world too complex to allow strategies to take shape by planners in the form of clear plans or fixed visions. He noted that many organizations develop deliberate plans on paper, but what really happens is that learning occurs as these plans meet with the dynamics of a changed operating environment, new competitors, unexpected technological breakthroughs, etc. Thus, he argued that strategies must emerge in small steps, as an organization adapts, or “learns.” 5

Good vs. Bad Strategy

We should make a differentiation between good strategies and bad. Bad strategies are far more common, as defined by UCLA professor Richard Rumelt, who notes:

Having conflicting goals, dedicating resources to unconnected targets and accommodating incompatible interests are the luxuries of the rich and powerful, but they make for bad strategy. Despite this, most organizations will not create focused strategies. Instead, they will generate laundry lists of desirable outcomes, and ignore the need for genuine competence in coordinating and focusing their resources. 6

To Rumelt, good strategy is “coherent action backed by an argument. And the core of the strategist’s work is always the same: discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them.” 7 This must be the touchstone for the next iteration of our maritime strategy.

Strategy is about choices, objectives, priorities, risk, and coherence—which is a logical thread between ends, ways, and means. American strategy repeats a number of faults all too frequently. The intellectual foundation for policy aims or strategic plans are often thin or inadequately challenged. Sometimes U.S. strategy is simply a list of unprioritized objectives or alliterative bullets on a PowerPoint slide. Sometimes our strategies are mere statements of a strategic vision or end state. In the latest maritime strategy, we listed missions, but the linkage between the missions, the design or architecture of our Fleet, and the resources necessary to build and sustain that Fleet are not clear. That missing coherence led to negative comments on CS-21 .

Rumelt defines the three elements of a good strategy as diagnosis, guiding policy (which is better defined as strategic design or logic), and coherent actions (see Figure 1). Good strategy is based on a solid diagnosis and provides a coherent plan of action to achieve stated aims. American maritime strategy must do the same. Good strategy must account for a dynamic geopolitical context and interaction with an adversary who has his own goals and options.

It is not locked into a static paper, it evolves and adapts to changing circumstances and an unpredictable world. Thus, we have to understand that our crystal balls are opaque, that critical assumptions must be retested, and planners recognize when new information disproves the basis of the plan or alters crucial decision points. We must constantly be prepared to question received wisdom, evaluate both explicit and implicit assumptions, ruthlessly assess results, and be willing to generate new hypotheses, plans, and solutions. Most of all, we need to ensure the thread or coherence between problem and solution. This, rather than slavish devotion to a glossy document, is real strategy and the best antidote against strategic paralysis.

The Purpose of a Maritime Strategy

We lack a common agreement among the naval-strategy community about what a maritime strategy is and what it should comprise. Moreover, we have varying expectations about what the maritime strategy should achieve. Some contend it is enough to articulate a compelling narrative about the purpose of a Navy, others that we must detail a strategic vision, and still others want to argue aggressively for a larger Navy. 8 But as Rumelt contends, “A strategy is not what you wish would happen. It is a set of practical actions for moving forward. It is not a ‘dog’s dinner’ of all the things various parties would like to see done.” Our strategy should produce “a focusing of energy and resources on a few key objectives whose accomplishment will make a real difference.” 9 There are at least five potential benefits from a comprehensive maritime strategy:

• Defines a shared vision of institutional purpose or mission for its members

• Creates an awareness and consensus on core challenges in a dynamic and competitive environment

• Identifies the ways/means logic to create and sustain a competitive advantage relative to the core challenge. This generates a clear and integrated strategic logic; a coherence between the ends, ways and means of the strategy

• Guides the development and sustainment of maritime capabilities and required capacity (Fleet design and size)

• Generates innovative trans-domain synergies (surface, subsurface, aviation, cyberspace) in the design and application of maritime power

CS-21 arguably achieved the first two of these possible purposes. The maritime leadership needs to decide how far down in descending order they want the next strategy to evolve. The third and fourth objectives would require a more substantial rewriting and redesign of the strategy. There are numerous arguments for and against linking the strategy to an explicit force design. Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, once commented that CS-21 was subtle, what he called a nuanced call for a larger Navy. 10 The next iteration should be more forceful, and less nuanced.

Strategic Pitfalls or Sins

Rumelt identifies a number of common strategy “sins.” 11 The first seven listed in Figure 2 are his. The eighth and ninth are this author’s own additions.

1. The essence of strategy is not only about making choices, it is about making choices concerning resources that are almost always constrained. The notion that one writes a strategy and then costs it out for submission as a budget is quite the rage on Capitol Hill, but it does not square with anything to do with strategy. Constraints and restraints impinge on all strategies. Real strategies are ultimately resource-constrained, and our fiscal situation only makes it more obvious today.

2. Rumelt is equally critical of leaders who confuse goals and audacious objectives with strategy. Increasing sales by 200 percent in one year or building a 450-ship Navy may galvanize the audience with one’s sheer audacity, but offers little in terms of real strategy unless it can be linked to actionable steps matched with resources. Real strategy or good strategy is about integrated and implementable steps that show how a goal can be achieved and how resources, plans, and policies are coherently linked to progress. Reaching for the stars is commendable, but it is not strategic thinking.

3. The foundation of a strategy is its diagnosis of the strategic environment and core challenges. Rumelt finds that many leaders overlook this phase, and furthermore do not recognize nor state the true strategic problem to be resolved. We probably do not suffer from this problem today, thanks to China’s crass assertiveness of late, but the last maritime strategy sidestepped the China challenge to focus on building and sustaining a global international system and access to the global commons, which represents its maritime-based trading distribution network. Any CS-21 writing team will have to address the range of challenges facing the nation and identify the critical issue that the maritime services can address.

4. CS-21 cannot be accused of being guilty of the sin many corporations commit—choosing grand, even audacious, goals that are hopelessly out of reach. Too many companies seek to double sales in a year, or attempt to grab the lion’s share of their market, even though they lack plans, resources, or means of obtaining their goal. Since CS-21 was more declaratory and explanatory in nature, it contains no explicit goals. However, there was a general understanding that the CNO’s oft-expressed plan for a 313-ship Fleet was the implicit goal of the strategy and the Department of the Navy. The next strategy should be more explicit about both the capabilities needed to be acquired and the necessary capacity to underwrite it. The strategy should have some stretch in it—an aspiration (300-plus ships or 12 ships a year) not a delusion (a fleet of 346 and beyond).

5. Rumelt’s claim that strategies should be phrased and framed in competitive terms is debatable. One of the strengths of CS-21 was that it was opportunity-based and not founded on a competitor or threat. Other critics wanted the strategy to identify China as the rising challenge and use that threat as our operational focus and to gain additional resources. This aspect of the strategy drew the most comments. 12 But CS-21 took a more indirect approach about China and the stability of the international system. Thus, it was based on a strategy of positive aims—a legitimate and more compelling strategy for future partners. This approach defends the extant rules of the road and draws in potential partners interested in maintaining the status quo and willing to work collaboratively toward that.

Rumelt’s guidance suggests that we reframe the next strategy like War Plan Orange or the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, which was very competitive and operationally oriented. This issue will remain the most contentious component of the updated strategy.

6. The sixth common sin is based on complacency or false assessments about an organization’s strengths and weaknesses relative to the operating environment. CS-21 was balanced about the Navy’s need to preserve its global reach and the readiness of our warfighting capability. It was also reasonable about the need to improve in areas like irregular warfare and expeditionary operations. Where the strategy did break down was in what Rumelt insists is the core issue—its coherence or the causal linkages between one’s goals and the strategy. Because it was determined that subsequent internal planning documents, such as the classified Navy Strategic Plan, would be where explicit goals, programming priorities and budgets would be detailed, CS-21 was not able to lay out a coherent Fleet design or even a force structure goal that was causally linked to the mission list or implicit priorities of the strategy. If the revision of CS-21 does anything, it should help its audience understand this linkage, a coherent and explicit tie between the strategy, its aims, and the means required. Without this fix, any new document is going to face strong criticism.

7. The authors of CS-21 might plead guilty to this sin, given the excessive number of stakeholders and audiences they tried to satisfy. Who is the ultimate audience for the next issue, the maritime services that must embrace and operationalize the strategy? Is it the Executive branch, Department of Defense bureaucrats, or Congress that ultimately is the arbiter of funding? The current CS-21 spoke to many constituencies, including future partners and potential adversaries. The next iteration will be read by all, but it must speak directly to its most important audience and not just reflect a bureaucratic lowest-common-denominator. Surely, all these will eventually read the document, and one might want to be aware of the potential misinterpretations that might be made, but ultimately the real audience for this document is the U.S. Navy and its maritime partners who must believe in it.

Two Additional Pitfalls or Sins

8. Conversely, the signatories of CS-21 did recognize that implementation is part of the strategy-making process. The writing team and the maritime leadership included numerous implementation imperatives—but they did not go far enough since they assumed (erroneously) that the budgeting process was the proper place for execution details. Several major naval initiatives over the past few years, including ballistic-missile defense in the Persian Gulf and Europe, the stand-up of the 10th Fleet and U.S. Marine Cyber Command, and the enormous impact of funding the Navy’s contributions to the nation’s strategic deterrent (a potential $100 billion development and acquisition bill) are not addressed in the strategy. We have published a strategy, but arguably not truly implemented it.

9. Some Cold War strategists can be accused of mortal rigidity about containment, but it was flexible in its application. So too for CS-21 . But clear-eyed strategists must always scan the environment for ongoing changes and even disconfirming evidence about geostrategic dynamics. A good strategist recognizes that assumptions are not written in stone, and that strategy is really an iterative and continuously renewable process. 13 It is not about writing a glossy document—it’s about constantly adapting to new circumstances.

Ultimately, crafting the strategy is only the beginning of a journey—good strategy is not just a product but a process of execution and adaptation. “Like a vessel under sail, grand strategy is at the mercy of uncontrollable and often unpredictable political, economic, and military winds and currents.” 14 Naval strategists must be alert to changes in context, take a sextant bearing, and apply constant tiller correction.

‘An Urgent Matter’

In conclusion, reversing the decline in U.S. strategic competence is recognized as an urgent matter. 15 All too often in the United States there is “an unrecognized black hole wherein strategy should have resided,” what the Anglo-American strategist Colin Gray titled our Strategy Deficiency Syndrome. 16 In the past, we could outspend, outproduce, and outfight our adversaries and overcome. No more—it’s a cliché, but it is time to out-think our opponents as well.

The naval strategy community is not as guilty as other components of our national security bureaucracy, but we can do better. A refresh to CS-21 , even a major rewrite, is a healthy thing. There are critical aspects of the strategic environment, including our diminished fiscal foundation, to consider. Given the recent guidance issued by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a refreshed strategy is entirely appropriate. 17 It also should reflect Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey’s direction for Joint Force 2020.

Good strategy involves hard choices, clear objectives, a continuous assessment of risks, and priorities. We have problems with the latter far too frequently. As the retired Army strategist Rick Sinnreich noted, “A vital requirement of successful strategic design is to bound the universe of objectives, recognizing that the desirable is not the same as important, nor the important the same as urgent.” 18 A refreshed iteration of CS-21 must do the same.

The CNO’s initiative to update our strategy is applauded, as our maritime services must adapt to real-world events and act on behalf of U.S. security interests in dangerous waters. Our emerging strategy is the next step in the adaptation to an ever-evolving context in a dynamic world. However, we need a “good” strategy, not a vision or ephemeral restatement of the obvious. The greater the challenge, the more a good strategy focuses and coordinates efforts to achieve a powerful competitive punch and effect. 19 Our nation needs the potent punch and stabilizing effect of a powerful Fleet.

1. Hew Strachan, “The Lost Meaning of Strategy,” Survival , Autumn 2005, pp. 33–54; Aaron Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning,” The Washington Quarterly , 31:1, pp. 47–60.

2. CDR Michael Junge, USN, “So Much Strategy, So Little Strategic Direction,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , February 2012, pp. 46–50.

3. Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, eds., The Making of Strategy: States, Rulers, and War , (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 1.

4. Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning , (New York: Free Press, 1994), pp. 318–21.

5. Henry Mintzberg, Joseph Lampel, and Bruce Ashland, Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic Management (New York: Free Press, 1998).

6. Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, The Difference and Why It Matters (New York: Crown Business, 2011), p. 20.

7. Richard Rumelt, “The Perils of Bad Strategy,” McKinsey Quarterly , June 2011, p. 11.

8. See William T. Pendley, “The New Maritime Strategy: A Lost Opportunity,” Naval War College Review , Spring 2008; countered by Robert C. Rubel, “The New Maritime Strategy, the Rest of the Story,” Naval War College Review , Spring 2008.

9. Richard Rumelt, “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy On Sale,” Rumelt’s Web Journal , 28 July 2011,

10. Robert D. Kaplan, “America’s Elegant Decline,” The Atlantic , November 2007, .

11. See Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. and Barry D. Watts, Regaining Strategic Competence (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2009), pp. 33–4.

12. See Robert O. Work and Jan van Tol, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: An Assessment” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 26 March 2008); Frank Hoffman, From Preponderance to Partnership, American Maritime Power in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2008).

13. See Williamson Murray, War, Strategy and Military Effectiveness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 136–7, 164–6.

14. Ibid., p. 256.

15. Barry D. Watts, U.S. Combat Training Operational Art, and Strategy Competence, Problems and Opportunities (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2008).

16. Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 247.

17. Leon Panetta, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 5 January 2012).

18. Richard Sinnreich, “Patterns of Grand Strategy,” in Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich, James Lacey, eds., The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 263.

19. Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy , p. 4.

Lieutenant Colonel Hoffman is Senior Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Proceedings .


1. A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.

2. A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.

3. Coherent action: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.


1. Failure to recognize or take seriously that resources are scarce.

2. Mistaking strategic goals for strategy.

3. Failure to recognize or state the strategic problem.

4. Choosing unattainable or poor strategic goals.

5. Not defining the strategic challenge competitively.

6. Making false presumptions about one’s own competence or the causal linkages between one’s strategy and one’s goals.

7. Insufficient focus on strategy due to trying to satisfy too many different stakeholders or bureaucratic processes.

8. Not recognizing that implementation is part of the process.

9. Falling in love with the strategy—ignoring environmental change and the fact that strategy is an iterative process not a product.



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