What’s your strategy?

Chess by wintersixfour

My strategy is to distract you with my fingernails while I move this horsey thing...

At the end of last year I taught a Chartered Management Institute Level 3 Leadership and Management course. It was great fun as it allowed me to play with various leadership and management theories and apply them to practical situations.

During the course, we touched on strategic planning and I came across an interesting model/theory about different approaches to strategy used by organisations. It occurred to me that this could be applicable to individuals thinking about their own career development strategy.

Three Strategy Models (based on Chaffee, 1985)

My visualisation of Chaffee's three strategy models

In her article Ellen Chaffee (1985) identifies three distinct models of strategy:

  1. Linear strategy. This consists of making decisions and formulating plans of action that will set and achieve viable goals. This tends to predominate in top-down organisations and assumes that future conditions will be fairly stable or predictable.
  2. Adaptive strategy. This consists of evaluating the opportunities and risks present in one’s surroundings. Strategy in this case means developing capabilities and resources that enable you to exploit the opportunities and insure against the risks. This involves a constant process of monitoring and adjustment which assumes that the environment is constantly changing and one must evolve to match it.
  3. Interpretive strategy. This approach views strategy as something which emerges from a constant dialogue between the various perspectives within and outside an organisation. As such it is a symbolic expression of the culture of an organisation which is dependent on  internal and external relationships. Adaptive strategy is about changing what you do, but interpretive strategy is about changing how you think and how you see yourself (and in so doing changing how others see you). In this way, an interpretive strategy is as much about attitudes as it is about actions. It is also about developing and improving interactions and relationships.

These models are not mutually exclusive; each subsequent model contains within it the previous models.

When it comes to an individual’s career strategy, this prompts a number of thoughts.

The Linear approach to strategy is a bit like the matching approach to career development. It assumes stable conditions and predictability. The Adaptive approach is a bit like happenstance approaches to career development, where the emphasis is on responding to unpredictable changes in one’s environment. Matching and happenstance are not mutually exclusive. Within an Adaptive strategy, goal-setting and planning happens more often, more provisionally and over shorter time scales — with constant reviews and adjustments.

This leaves us with Interpretive strategy, which seems to be more about clarifying a sense of meaning and identity which guide one’s interactions with an ever-changing environment. The difficulty with an adaptive strategy is that one is in danger of being blown here, there and everywhere by random events. Developing a clear sense of who you are, rather than just thinking about what you want to do, is one way to make it easier to weigh up the various options and threats that come your way in life.

More than that though, by clearly communicating your identity to the world around you and by building strong relationships based on that identity, you may increase the chances that the right opportunities gravitate towards you in the way that a strong brand and a good marketing strategy increase a companies chances of attracting the right customers.


  • How much time do you spend with clients helping them to plan and how much helping them to build a clear working identity?
  • Is identity development something that can be coached or is it just something that happens to people?
  • Do you know of any techniques or interventions designed to work directly with identity development?

Further reading

Chaffee, E. (1985). Three models of strategy. The Academy of Management Review, 10(1), 89-98. DOI: 10.2307/258215

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  1. #1 by ThresholdMum on 2 February 2012 - 18:51

    Thank you very much for this blog. I find this theory very helpful and applicable to my work with expat partners – involved in serial moves between very different countries/cultures and frequently adopting different professional roles within each one.

    I spend a lot of time helping individuals clarify the experiences & skills they love to use and how they’ve been articulated in very different cultures, determining the common strands which underlie. Because the language, role and context can vary so much between roles e.g. from Democratic Republic of Congo, to Bosnia to Haiti to Kenya, it seems often more thorny for people to be conscious of the underlying working identity, – especially when they compare their mosaic happenstance working identity to the more formal ‘progression’ of their partner who is leading the move. Because much of what they did was the ‘norm’ in the culture of that role, many seem to really value reflection on what could appear significant to an outsider, – the who you are in all this, and what you managed that is significant to the rest of us.

  2. #2 by Jim Bright on 3 February 2012 - 03:15

    Interesting David, I think the key is in the not mutually exclusive statement you made. On key difference between happenstance and Chaos Theory of Careers approaches is that the CTC framework assumes the person is also a dynamical (moving/changing) system and hence is doing things you might classify as in the Interpretative strategy area. Where CTC moves beyond this is that the clarification process is never entirely certain or knowable. Nonetheless the process of exploring and understanding the limits of your strange attractor does provide you with that guidance in times of ambiguity, as long as we remember we have infinite capacity to surprise ourselves let along others!

    Great post

  3. #3 by gMg Management on 18 July 2012 - 20:33

    This is a great blog post. These strategies are very practical and the way you explained them is very very accurate. I love the picture.

  4. #4 by David Winter on 30 August 2012 - 00:05

    Just come across another classification of strategies. This one is based on characterising your operating evironment according to its predictability and its malleability.

    High predictability + low malleability = Classical strategy (similar to Linear Strategy above)

    Low predictability + low malleability = Adaptive strategy (as above)

    Low predicatbility + high malleability = Shaping strategy (change the environment to suit your strengths and give yourself an advantage)

    High predictability + high malleability = Visionary strategy (know what you want to achieve and change your environment in order to make it happen)


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