The Origin of Strategy

Issue 39

4,500+ smart, curious folks have subscribed to the growth catalyst newsletter so far. If you are new here, receive the newsletter weekly in your email by subscribing 👇

Strategy isn’t new!

When life on the earth began, it started with single-cell organisms. These organisms required some of the resources on earth to sustain their life, and it was available in abundance. Over time, as different varieties of complex life forms evolved, the food chain got set up. These organisms created their unique strategy to find food, shelter, and sustain themselves.

In 1934, Professor Gause of Moscow University published the results of a set of experiments in which he put two very small animals (protozoans) of the same genus in a bottle. The conditions were to add fresh water every day and input a constant flow of food. If the animals were of different species, they could survive and persist together. If they were of the same species, they could not. Gause called it the Principle of Competitive Exclusion: two species that make their living in an identical manner cannot coexist indefinitely.

We do have millions of species on the earth today. How did that happen? Through natural selection. Natural selection states that individuals in a population are naturally different in some ways. This variation means that some individuals have traits better suited to the environment than others. Individuals with suitable traits—traits that give them some advantage—are more likely to survive and reproduce. These individuals then pass the suitable traits on to their offspring. Over time, these advantageous traits become more common in the population.

Natural selection ensures variety, which means different species could be formed who didn’t compete with each other for the same resource. The richer the environment, the more species can co-exist. Natural selection explains how a wide variety of life forms developed over time from a single common ancestor. But there is a little-to-no strategy in natural selection — it happens by chance.

As humans walked on the earth, the competitive exclusion principle held true. Hunter-gatherer groups surrounded by other hunter-gatherer groups in the same area will fight, at least occasionally, while hunter-gatherer groups surrounded by groups with different means can coexist peacefully.

But humans didn’t rely on chance or natural selection. We used our imagination and thinking abilities to create strategies to survive. Chance still mattered, but also mattered the imagination, logic, planning, and preparation to eliminate the competition.

Initially, the strategy was usually a topic of how to win wars. For example, one of the most popular books around war strategy came 2500 years ago, written by a Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu — The Art of War. There is a huge knowledge base that extends thousands of years in time around war strategy.

The ‘strategy’ that we use today in the context of business/growth has borrowed heavily from military strategy. One of my favorite quotes from The Art of War is,

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Now read about SWOT analysis widely popularised by management gurus,

SWOT analysis is a strategic planning technique used to help a person or organization identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to business competition or project planning

See the similarities?

Guerilla marketing, defense vs offense, competitive analysis, getting data over competition (spying), and many others are borrowed from what we learned for thousands of years fighting each-other.

Companies and products follow the law of competitive exclusion. Two companies in an identical niche can’t co-exist indefinitely. The earth is finite, so every company also can’t even grow indefinitely. It has never happened. Competitors perpetually crowd each other out. The fittest survive and prosper until they displace their competitors or outgrow their resources. 

This is the core of strategy, and it has been true since our beginning. Don’t let anyone fool you with the vision-mission and all that fugazzi as the replacement of real strategy.

Before going into frameworks and theories, I wanted you to think about it and assimilate. Welcome to the world of strategy :)

Have a good day,


Twitter | LinkedIn