A Formal Theory of Strategy

48 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2014 Last revised: 13 Dec 2019

See all articles by Eric Van den Steen

Eric Van den Steen

Harvard Business School - Strategy Unit

Date Written: December 14, 2013


What makes a decision strategic? When is strategy most important? This paper studies the structure and value of strategy (in its everyday sense), starting from a (functional) definition of strategy as ‘the smallest set of (core) choices to optimally guide the other choices.’ This definition captures the idea of strategy as the core of a – potentially flexible and adaptive – intended course of action. It coincides with the equilibrium outcome of a ‘strategy formulation game’ where a person can – at a cost – look ahead, investigate, and announce a small set of choices to the rest of the organization.

Starting from that definition, the paper studies what makes a decision ‘strategic’ and what makes strategy important, considering commitment, irreversibility, and persistence of a choice; the presence of uncertainty (and the type of uncertainty); the number and strength of interactions and the centrality of a choice; its level and importance; the need for specific capabilities; and competition and dynamics. It shows, for example, that irreversibility does not make a decision more strategic but makes strategy more valuable, that long-range strategies will be more concise, why a choice what not to do can be very strategic, and that a strategy ‘bet’ can be valuable. It shows how strategy creates endogenously a hierarchy among decisions. And it also shows how understanding the structure of strategy may enable a strategist to develop the optimal strategy in a very parsimonious way.

JEL Classification: D70, L20, M10

Suggested Citation

van den Steen, Eric, A Formal Theory of Strategy (December 14, 2013). Harvard Business School Strategy Unit Working Paper No. 14-058, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2383981 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2383981

Eric Van den Steen (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School - Strategy Unit ( email )

Harvard Business School
Soldiers Field Road
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics