Journal Reviews

What Obama and McCain can learn from Michael Porter

On September 26, in the first Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the candidates discussed the perceived success or failure of the war in Iraq. McCain vigorously promoted his feeling that the troop surge was a success, while Obama focused on the rationale behind invading in the first place – claiming that the tactics may be working, but the bigger picture, the strategy – was misplaced. McCain launched back with a criticism: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu, Chinese General, 500 B.C.

Pundits have questioned whether either of the candidates really knows the difference between strategy and tactics, despite some evidence to the contrary. In politics, the distinction between strategy and tactics is compounded by the fact that the military defines strategy in a very specific context where the concepts of policy and strategy can easily be entangled.

But politics aside… do you know the difference? And do you know why you should care?

The answer lies in a 1996 article in Harvard Business Review by Michael Porter entitled “What is Strategy?” – one of the classic articles in management. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between strategy, which involves striking a contrast between yourself and your competitors, and operational effectiveness, which means “performing similar activities better than rivals perform them.” All of the pillars of managing quality and productivity fall into this latter category, which explains why executives have, according to Porter, struggled to translate those operational improvements into sustainable profitability.

“Improving operational effectiveness is a necessary part of management, but it is not strategy… The operational agenda is the proper place for constant change, flexibility, and relentless efforts to achieve best practice. In contrast, the strategic agenda is the right place for defining a unique position, making clear trade-offs, and tightening fit… strategic continuity, in fact, should make an organization’s continual improvement more effective.”

Using this frame of reference, a country’s foreign policy is more akin to its strategy than war plans or their means of execution.

Why should you care? Because fighting the good fight of operational effectiveness will not necessarily win you the strategic war. Figuring out what you do uniquely, how and why you do it uncommonly well, and understanding how to align your capabilities with your mission is the secret to success. Are either of the candidates meeting these criteria? It’s your call.


Porter, M. (1996). What is strategy? Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996, 61-78.

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