Sculpting Strategy


“… just remove everything that is not David.” (Michelangelo)

Hernan Cortés made history when he landed in Veracruz in 1519, to complete the conquest of the Aztec Empire two years later. History might have been different had Cortes’ men still loyal to Cuban Governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar had the option to retreat and flee. Cortes ordered his men to strip and scuttle his fleet to effectively prevent that possibility while also preventing the possibility to flee himself. With this bold irreversible choice, he carved out a unique sustainable strategic position.

The very essence of strategy is explicit, purposeful choice. Strategy is saying explicitly: “We’re going to do these things and not those things for these reasons.” The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Cortes chose to move forward and fight. He chose not to retreat. He said: “I will stay here and you Spaniards will stay here also, and we shall conquest this land or we will die.” He also let Aztecs know they would not give up.

A strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions. Trade-offs occur when activities are incompatible. They create the need for choice and purposefully limit our course of action. You only know that you’ve made a real strategic choice if you can say the opposite of what that choice is, and it’s not stupid.

I don’t know you, but when I read about bold strategies, like Cortes scuttling his ships, I have a feeling similar to the awe-inspiring one you experience in front of beauty. Carl von Clausewitz said that strategy belongs primarily to the realm of art. Choice and irreversibility create a unique legacy which lay the foundation of what will be possible in the future. They may (or may not) stand the test of time. Every true choice removes a chunk of what is possible. Choice sculpts history, like a sculptor chipping away a shape from a mass of stone.

Michelangelo said that every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. When the Pope saw Michelangelo’s David, the masterpiece of the Renaissance, he marvelled and asked the sculptor about the secret of his genius: “How do you know what to cut away?” Michelangelo replied: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.”

Strategy is actually that simple: Just remove everything is not your project, is not your firm, is not your life, is not you!


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