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Why it’s Better to Have a Strategic Philosophy than an Ideology

2012 September 30
by Greg Satell

Do you have a philosophy or an ideology?  The answer to that question will very likely determine whether you will succeed or fail.

Philosophies ask questions (sometimes annoying ones, which is why they made Socrates drink hemlock). Ideologies, on the other hand,  determine answers.  That seemingly nuanced distinction makes all the difference in the world.

Most people prefer ideologies.  They’re easier.  You can believe in world peace or free markets, feel good about yourself and never have to think much about it.  Philosophies are much harder.  They provide a guide to the journey but don’t give us the destination.  The advantage of philosophy is that it will get you where you want to go.  Ideology won’t.

The Artist and The Engineer

It would be tough to find two people with philosophies as diametrically opposed as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  As I noted in an earlier post, Jobs was an artist while Gates was an engineer.  That led them to lead vastly different lives and to build thouroughly distinctive businesses.

Jobs thought holistically and wanted to build entire products.  Gates, on the other hand, thought in terms of features and dominated the industry through choke points.  While Jobs built Apple into an integrated organization, merging hardware and software, Gates’s Microsoft was modular and depended on partners to get his wares to market.

Both were, of course, incredibly successful, but neither was absolute.  Jobs sought out partnerships when circumstances demanded it of him (and in the case of iTunes did so very effectively) and Gates set the seeds for Microsoft’s current resurgence by building the Xbox, an integrated product.

Their philosophies were not commandments, but merely indicated preferences.

Frameworks vs. Ideals

A philosophy is the core of a strategy in that it provides a coherent logic for making choices. It creates a framework for thinking, but does not replace thought.  It’s like an owners manual, helpful but not determinant.

An ideal, by its very definition, doesn’t reflect reality, but seeks perfection.  They’re nice to have, even admirable.  We would all like to be perfectly virtuous, honest and true.  Yet in the real world, which is the only one we live in, we falter as do those around us.  It is those imperfections that make life difficult and interesting.

To live life according to a philosophy is to seek meaning through action.  To operate according to an ideology is to live by parable, to lose the distinction between story and event.

Both Gates and Jobs used their philosophies as frameworks which were central to how their enterprises functioned.  They laid out prefered paths to reach goals they chose to pursue.  However, those frameworks served as mere methods to achieve objectives, not to be confused with the objectives themselves.

Goals vs. Desires

Management theorists like to emphasize the importance of strategic intent.  Southwest Airlines seeks to be “THE low cost airline,” Google wants to organize the world’s information and Jack Welch sought to be number one or two in every category in which his company, General Electric, competed.  Those are goals.

Desires are fundamentally different.  All companies want to increase sales and profits. They want to have the best people, build strong brands and to be admired.  It is easy to want something.  The only real qualification is that you don’t already have it.  There is nothing about our desires that makes us special.

Notice the difference.  Goals are specific and motivate us to act.  Southwest pursued low costs by giving up frills that other airlines wouldn’t.  Google’s goal of organizing the world’s information is unique to their skills and competencies.  Jack Welch’s goal, in context, was primarily about divestiture and focus, not hubris.

The Myth of “Great Strategy and Poor Execution”

A popular excuse for failure is that “we had a great strategy but fell down on execution.” That’s not possible.  Good strategy takes capabilities into account, so if you couldn’t execute then you had a bad strategy to begin with it.  What people mean to say is that thought they had sound beliefs, but the marketplace had other ideas.

The problem with that type of thinking is, as I’ve noted before, is that we are not wholly responsible for our beliefs.  They are far more the result of our culture, genetics and the accident of our experience than they are the product of our discretion.  We can no more chose to believe than we can choose to breathe.  A belief is a precursor to an excuse.

We can, however, choose our philosophy.  We can choose to think, to disbelieve what our gut is telling us.  We can choose to master our greatest enemy, that which resides in ourselves and spurs us to act without thinking.

There is far greater merit in living by a philosophy than there is in dying for an idea.

– Greg

12 Responses leave one →
  1. September 30, 2012


    Great article, as always, a work of art. May I share some possibly annoying thought.

    A child in school is said to be daydreaming. In growing and aging, maybe maturing, we graduate to visionary at some point.

    Our visions tend to be positive movies in which we star. A movie project is planned and organized to present a story, a vision. Movie making needs direction and control to get the story right. We need vision. We need the light, the action, the applause affirming our production of life.

    Everywhere you look, people are seeing things. What we see off there in the ether is not always foresight or formative. But we are all seeing some things.

    Vision is invisible. You have to describe your vision to me. Whatever I understand it to be; it is your vision. The instant I see your vision it is changed.

    Now I have a vision. I cannot keep it to myself.

    Vision can be as awkward to discuss, as it is difficult to comprehend at times. For each individual, our vision is right in front of us. We look, and move forward toward it, as it moves forward away, always ahead of us.

    We keep looking to see if it is what we think. It is.

    You may wonder where this all heads, if you are still awake in moments before the sunrise. We are not to be fooled into thinking what we are seeing is real.

    What you see is only what you see. This is as human as we are.

    With the dawn, we just want to celebrate another day of life, another day of living.

  2. September 30, 2012

    Very cool. Thanks.

    – Greg

  3. September 30, 2012

    Nicely said!

    The distinction between just believing in a static position (ideology) gives you all the answers and asking pertinent questions (philosophy) to guide you to the best solution is very relevant, especially in todays business world. So many people think the former will point them to success. Unfortunately nothing remains static so an ideology, especially a very rigid one, can lead to disaster because it can’t adjust for changes.

    Thank you for sharing these insights.

  4. September 30, 2012

    Thanks Eric. Glad you liked it!

    – Greg

  5. September 30, 2012

    great article! your statement of how it provides a framework but doesnt replace thinking is genius. it’s a shame that too many brillant people out there stifle their own, and others, potential, and what they can create, by adhering to stale and rigid ideals.

  6. September 30, 2012

    Thanks Doug! It’s not often that somebody refers to something I do as genius. My mother would probably agree, but my wife would beg to differ!

    – Greg

  7. john purcell permalink
    October 4, 2012


    Sorry to break up the circle-jerk, but I have read many of your perspectives and found them brilliant – this one, not so much; probably because ideology and strategy (& most of all execution) make much more sense to me than philosophy. I nonetheless would like to unleash your powerful brain on a juggernaut project on which I am working. Please email me.

  8. October 4, 2012

    This seriously hurts my brain. I’m smart but not *that* smart. I will keep trying because I sense brilliance in there.

  9. October 4, 2012

    Sorry to disappoint.

    – Greg

  10. October 4, 2012

    Thanks for the vote of confidence:-)

    – Greg

  11. November 3, 2012

    Greg, enjoyed this thought piece immensely, especially “The Myth of Great Strategy/Poor Execution.” It explains and exposes a great deal about why things get screwed up in organizations that should know better, but hope that a guiding philosophy or tactics are enough to get it done. Appreciate the insights.


  12. November 3, 2012

    Thanks Fred. Have a great weekend!

    – Greg

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