Ends, ways, and means. Over the past three decades, these three words have become longhand for “strategy”; yet, too often, the formula has let us down.

It was in May 1989 that Col. Arthur F Lykke Jr., a US Army War College professor and retired colonel, published a paper entitled “Defining Military Strategy” and offered up his three-word solution. Ends-Ways-Means has since come to dominate academies, training courses, and strategic planning at all levels, including tactical and operational. From junior officers to the most senior ranks, there is all too widespread consensus that providing an Ends-Ways-Means analysis is a sufficient response to the question, “So, what’s your strategy?”

Occasionally, it is the right response. If you need to tackle a known humanitarian crisis, for example, then an Ends-Ways-Means strategy can do it: give everyone shelter (end) by instructing the army to hand out tents (way) by equipping the army with what they need (means).

But most problems are much harder than that for two important reasons.

First, for most military operations, there is an opponent of some sort—an enemy or competitor who seeks to disrupt your efforts, and refuses to remain inert. Basic Ends-Ways-Means is forced to make assumptions about an adversary and, whatever those assumptions are, an adversary will try to defy them. As the Prussian strategist Helmuth von Moltke observed, no plan survives first contact with an enemy. Think about what that means: failing as soon as an engagement begins is a fundamental deficiency we would not tolerate in a rifle or a military unit. We should not tolerate it in our strategic construct either.

Second, the need for strategy doesn’t end when the tents have been delivered. Each “end state” invites the question: What next? Too often, a finite end is presumed sufficient when later events show it is not—perhaps the most notorious example is the “Mission Accomplished” proclamation in May 2003 following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces in the field. As long as the intention is that life will go on, there is never a true “end.” Hence, the very first word of Lykke’s three-word formula is often misleading. Sometimes it injects self-deception into our strategic planning; at worst, it guides us astray.

It is a disturbing truth that Ends-Ways-Means analysis is best when used not to craft our own strategy but to conceptualize that of an adversary. This is the heart of operational planning: to understand what your opponent is trying to achieve (their end), so you can prevent it; and to disable their center of gravity (which can include their essential ways or means), so they cannot succeed. It is a blessing in conflict to be confronted by an opponent committed to an Ends-Ways-Means approach, because it makes it easier to know how they can be beaten. That is why we should be so alarmed that, far too often, we commit to such a strategy ourselves.

The genesis of Ends-Ways-Means elucidates the problems it was designed to confront. Lykke honed the model in the 1980s, as the United States was reorienting from Vietnam, and it rose to prominence beginning with Lykke’s testimony during Senate hearings in 1987, which scrutinized President Reagan’s military strategy. Resource allocation featured strongly in both Vietnam and Reagan’s successful bid to outspend the Soviet Union. Lykke made “means” a fundamental component of strategy, and his formula can be used to imply that almost any “end” can be achieved if sufficient means are devoted to it—that every nut can be cracked if the hammer is large enough.

It is in the allocation of resources between competing demands that Lykke’s formula comes into its own: the battles it is best suited for are budgetary and internal. The annual budget round is protected from the two features that make Lykke’s approach to strategy unhelpful in the real world: each financial year concludes on a known date, and there is rarely a need to respond to enemy activity until the next budget cycle. Ends-Ways-Means offers a plausible strategic model for fighting the internal battles that dominate military-bureaucratic life in peacetime.

But when Ends-Ways-Means is applied to warfare, it has proven “unremarkable at best,” and for several reasons (which go beyond the two fundamental failures cited earlier).

First, because in warfare, normal budgetary rules do not apply. When spending money on almost any other venture—such as transport, education, or advertising—it is usual to expect every dollar to generate slightly less value than the dollar that went before. Economists call this diminishing marginal returns and, applied to defense, it encourages us to provide just enough for each military purpose. But wars don’t work like that. Defense based on “just enough” will not deter a motivated enemy. An extra fighting unit can often have a greater effect than the one that went before because it can transform a defeat into a narrow victory, or a narrow victory into unchallengeable dominance. Marginal returns don’t diminish, and so the economic model based on that theory misguides us. (Advocates for Lykke’s model may counter by citing Lykke’s inclusion of risk: he calls for extra resources to reduce dangers, known and unknown. But that is a subtly different point, since it still presumes diminishing marginal returns when, really, the outputs of defense result from a much more complex interplay of inputs.)

Second, at the strategic level, ways and means usually translate into the tools of national power—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—which are applied towards the end. But it is a mistake to imagine a geostrategic problem can be solved by simply applying any of these as fungible, description-free resources. What matters in diplomacy is not the quantity of diplomats, any more than extra ammunition can determine success in a firefight. Having enough diplomats and ammunition are necessary, for sure, but not at all sufficient, for achieving goals. It’s what they do that matters. Although in theory this could be addressed by a focus on “ways,” the reality of Ends-Ways-Means, enacted through a budgetary process, results too often in this aspect being diminished.

Third, and most importantly, all elements of national power are fundamentally political. Diplomatic activity is inherently political; information is the oxygen of political discourse; and economics, the study of scarcity and choice, is at the heart of many political debates. It is a fiction that the military is uniquely apolitical. Every military command comes with political instructions, usually implicit. A battalion commander who directs a company commander to “Seize that bridge!” may not specify, “And obey the Geneva Conventions when you do it!,” but he should mean it. This political aspect becomes obvious when so-called strategic corporals feature, or when troops are told not to do anything that would look bad on the front page of a national newspaper. Politics is inherent in all military instructions.

The fact that the means for conducting war are fundamentally political coheres with Clausewitz’s famous dictum, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This inescapable fact is even more pertinent in the current time, when great power competition is ascendant, and the character of that competition favors disinformation, hybrid activity, and diplomatic subterfuge. It may have been possible to partially insulate some military elements from politics in past decades, but the effort becomes increasingly difficult and, at times, counterproductive. All war is fundamentally about persuasion, albeit rather blunt forms of persuasion at times. And, as anyone who has tried to use Ends-Ways-Means for explicitly political purposes can attest, the formulation is ill suited to the function.

So, if Ends-Ways-Means is set aside, what should take its place?

It’s important to be clear on what strategy is. The notion of strategy has evolved through history, several competing definitions have emerged, and the differences between them are significant. Clausewitz described it as the use of battles to achieve the object of war. French strategist André Beaufre favored “the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute.” Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley wrote that strategy is “a constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where chance, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominate.” Lawrence Freedman defined strategy as “the art of creating power.” More generically, strategy has been described as a “theory of victory.”

These definitions differ most on the degree to which strategy is about planning or adaptation, and whether it is essentially a military activity or something broader. But deciding between these rival definitions is less valuable than deciding how strategy should be determined; the most fundamental question remains, “What should we do?”

One useful approach to determining strategy, used widely in the private sector and in international development, is known as problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). PDIA involves identifying a problem or issue to be addressed (e.g., entrenched corruption in a public practice or a market failure), empowering multiple experimental responses, embedding feedback from those experiments swiftly into the next round of actions, then finally developing a broad consensus on the best approach and scaling up the solution. PDIA has similarities with the iterative OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop model sometimes used at a tactical level.

PDIA is not alien to strategy development in the military. For example, the highly successful combined arms tactics used by the Allies in 1918 emerged through what was essentially problem-driven iterative adaption. Lessons from failures were noted, elements of success were identified, the method was honed to correct for enemy responses, and eventually it was scaled up. Sadly, that four-year learning process was immensely costly—millions of lives were lost before the approach was perfected, and institutional failings slowed the pace of adaptation.

PDIA in World War I is an example of strategy development that corrects for one of the two deficiencies in the Ends-Ways-Means model. It allowed for adaptation in the face of a responsive enemy, but it still presumed there could be a satisfactory end state, the military defeat of the enemy. The mishandling of the political aftermath of World War I in Europe that, eventually, gave rise to World War II, suggests the end state was not an end at all.

Strategy with a never-ending objective must be inherently political, because politics persists. It is to an order (or disorder) of public power that war must bequeath its grip when it is done. The “end” of the Iraq War, for example, was not really to defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces in the field—that was merely a benchmark along the way that, done badly, would jeopardize the onward journey. The real, perpetual “end” is a satisfactory relationship with Iraq, which, in turn, requires an acceptable civic settlement in that country.

What could constitute an ongoing political goal? There are many, and they include the security of citizens and the defense of a territorial homeland, public safety, freedoms, and prosperity. Some of the most artfully written constitutions frame these in poetry. A government, especially in times of crisis, may face a trade-off between these goals, and different systems of government will make these choices in particular ways. The guiding principle behind all these decisions will be to protect and advance the public interest. In an international security context, the public interest usually involves persuading others to align in a favorable way: for allies to offer mutual support, and foes to stand down their threats, because they have been either deterred or defeated. The object of interstate competition is not to defeat the opposition, but to win the peace, just as the goal of a legal defense team is not to answer the prosecution, but to win the jury—although, in reality, there will be much overlap between these two.

By ensuring the strategic end we identify is inherently political, so it can be perpetual, and by employing PDIA to factor in an uncooperative enemy, we can significantly improve Ends-Ways-Means.

Can the formula be rescued? Perhaps. But the greater error may be to assume that there can be any sort of one-size-fits-all formula at all. Strategy, as Lawrence Freedman reminds us, is an art; color-by-numbers it is not. With suitable adjustment we can make Ends-Ways-Means better, but not as reliable or artistic as good strategists should want it to be.

Ends-Ways-Means, then, is best as a tool for tactical planning and internal budgetary battles. Used iteratively, through PDIA, it is possible for the approach to factor in how a competitor may respond. To move away from a succession of goals toward a strategic direction requires politics and an understanding of the public interest. The formula can be improved and made more useful, but it cannot be perfected.

Too often Ends-Ways-Means has delivered disappointment because it has been elevated above its utility: it is essentially a budgetary or planning tool for achieving tactical advantage. To think strategically is to think politically, because strategy is an art, and so can never be described by a single, simple formula. Nevertheless, strategy can be done much better than it has been in the decades since Lykke’s paper was published. The ever-increasing intensity of great power competition means such an improvement is not just desirable. It has become a necessity.

Iain King CBE FRSA is an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute. He was recently the UK visiting fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe Program, after serving as counsellor for defense policy and nuclear issues in the British Embassy in Washington. Previously, he was director of programs at the United Kingdom’s overseas democracy promotion agency, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He is an author of philosophy, international affairs, and fiction, and has been featured as a foreign policy analyst by CNN, the BBC, Defense One, Prospect, and the National Interest. King was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013, for services to governance in Libya, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.