How to Advance Positions in Campaigns

To attain some positions we must deal with one damn thing after another.

"Fight five different campaigns without a firm rule for victory."
Sun Tzu's The Art of War 6:8:12

"Life is a campaign not a battle, and has its defeats as well as its victories." Don Piatt

Our strategic positions exist in the minds of those whose decisions affect our lives, potentially rewarding us. Those mental positions are usually not changed dramatically by making a single successful claim. Positions change, as Ernest Hemingway described in The Sun Also Rises, in “Two ways, gradually then suddenly.” In his book, Hemingway was describing bankruptcy, but the same rule applies whether we are moving our position up or letting it slide down. The effect of our life strategies is cumulative, over time. Our big leaps forward and big falls down are proceeded by a large number of small moves that position us to rise or fall.

If we look at any strategic area of our lives, developing our careers or building our relationships, the pattern is the same. We make a lot of little moves and, if we do them correctly, we position ourselves for bigger changes. For example, in our careers, we gradually accumulate more responsibilities. experience, and credibility, and, eventually, we get a promotion, or we qualify for a better position elsewhere.

In practical strategy, we call this related series of small, incremental moves toward a specific goal, “a campaign.” Unlike Superman, we humans cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound. A campaign is a series or group of related actions or moves used to put us in a position for a larger opportunity. In campaigns, we use a series of short-term positions to attain a big change in how others see us. Campaigns are necessary because many opportunities must be pursued by going through a series of stages.

We approach campaigns as a series of smaller, more manageable situations. There are nine common stages that campaigns usually pass through in order to reach their final culmination. However, this does not mean that campaigns can be planned in advance. We cannot predict which situations or stages any given campaign will pass through. Some campaigns may pass through the same situations several times. Other campaigns may skip most stages. Each of these nine common strategic situations requires a specific type of response. Knowing the right response to each common situation is the key to managing a long campaign.

  1. A campaign is a series of related actions used to take advantage of an opportunity. 

    The positions targeted by campaigns cannot be achieved by a single move. They are usually positions that are well-defined, well-established, and persistent. They, therefore, require a series of related, small moves. Though we can think about the potential shape a given campaign may take, in the end, the actual shape of the campaign will be determined not by our plans, but by the result of each move, what we learn, and unexpected events.

  2. Campaigns are required to cover large distances or get around significant barriers.

    In our daily decision-making, we often filter out opportunities that require a large investment in time and effort because those opportunities are less likely to lead to success. Since some well-defined and established positions are more persistent than regular opportunities, however, a given competitive landscape can define a specific series of moves needed to establish these positions. It is the cumulative effect of this series of moves in the minds of others that matter. President Lincoln lost every political race he ran in before becoming president, but his losses also established a position in the minds of the public that allowed him to get elected to the highest office in the land.

  3. Campaigns have a specific direction but the specific endpoint is dictated by events and resulting opportunities.

    The exact nature of each adjustment in direction during a campaign cannot be known beforehand. During campaigns, we learn. Our moves depend on what we learn. Only when we know the results of the last move can our next move be chosen. Strategic moves are guided by events and the opportunities that arise from previous moves. Many of those pursuing a medical career may initially hope to become brain surgeons, but, in the end, some of those people become proctologists. Some of them also end up in specialties they had never heard of before studying medicine. The world dictates what is needed. Practical strategy simply listens to what the world is telling us.

  4. Campaigns break down large barriers with the cumulative, convergent effect of small actions. 

    What qualifies us for our current job? Our previous job and all the other jobs leading up to it. Campaigns rely upon mounting effects of separate, independent experiences. Each move, by itself, is not sufficient to achieve the desired goal. It is the cumulative effect on how people think about us that matters. As we move through schooling, workplaces, or relationships, our objective numbers—our grades, our salary, our number of children, etc.—matter less than the people we contact and the impressions we make on them. Only other people can decide to reward us. Our positions exist first in their minds before they are solidified by our claims.

  5. Campaigns can be advanced even if moves fail.

    Indeed, most of our actions may be considered "failures" because they appear not to make any difference in our rewards. However, even the way we fail affects how people think about us. Again, we must think about President Lincoln’s political career, one failed election after another. All past actions impact our positions in the minds of others. While each action doesn't get us measurably closer to our goal in an objective sense, it can still work on the subjective level, emotional level. People’s decisions about supporting or opposing us depend only upon these subjective feelings.

  6. Campaigns persistently pursue a sequence of alternative paths, one after another. 

    Each move within a campaign independently explores a different path. New paths are explored until we find which ones work best for us. Some of these paths a parallel. Some consist of more steps, others of fewer. We cannot pursue all these alternative paths at the same time. We try one after an other until we find the one the works.

  7. The “suddenly” after the “gradually” is often a big surprise.

    A campaign is an incremental approach. The fact that it can position us for a “lucky” break is usually forgotten in the process. Mentally, we can only expect to plod along in small steps through a dense forest until we break into a clearing and our possibilities open up before us suddenly and surprisingly.


In the coming weeks, I am going to explore the nine common situations encountered in strategic campaigns. Each situation, properly understood, offers one best strategic response. In each upcoming article, I am going to examine how to diagnose a given challenge and explain the best possible response and why it works. Most of these articles will only be available to paid subscribers.