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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2022]

Cover of Strong. Secure. Engaged.

Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Olivier is a doctoral student in Business Administration at the Athabasca University. He is also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. LCol Olivier has completed 27 years of service and currently works as the Chief of Staff at the Directorate of Ammunition and Explosives Management and Engineering.

In 2017, the Department of National Defence (DND) published Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy (SSE). It has de facto served as the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) strategy. It is an ambitious document meant to convey “clear direction on Canadian defence priorities over a 20-year horizon”.Footnote 1 Canada’s active military role in Afghanistan ceased almost a decade ago (2011). Since then, the CAF have faced a rapidly changing Canadian landscape and an increasingly “unpredictable and complex security environment”,Footnote 2 while its ability to perform and continue to serve the numerous and diverse interestsFootnote 3 of Canadians has raised questions. The institution’s internal fit and old logics have remained, but the external fit has altered, further indicating that Siggelkow’s “fit-conservation change and playing a new game”Footnote 4 is necessary. In other words, the existing organizational system can and should remain. However, further capabilities and capacity must be developed to increase performance.

SSE simultaneously signals change and stabilizes the CAF environment to offer consistencyFootnote 5 during its planned and long-lasting transformation. SSE provides strategic orientation and direction with regards to the management of four areas: people, i.e., public servants (non-military) and CAF members; materiel, both existing and new; expected contributions of the force; and funding. It provides Canadians and DND personnel with global context, which underpins SSE. The strategy addresses the internal contingency factors of structure, integration, size or capacity, capabilities, task, people, and resource uncertainties. Thus, the institution is committed to “fit its structure [and other organizational elements] to the contingency factors of the organization and thus the [external] environment”.Footnote 7

SSE offers fresh opportunities, such as the significant materiel acquisition program being implemented by DND. It represents a “mediating force … between the internal and the external context”.Footnote 8 SSE is an intended strategy to be managed deliberately and realized iteratively over the next two decades.Footnote 9 For the reasons discussed below, Canada’s defence strategy is already a widely accepted document, especially with DND personnel, for the CAF was given renewed focus and a restored “sense of being in control”,Footnote 10 which had gradually faded since the Afghan conflict. A priori, SSE and its prescribed transformation are desired and aligned with the driving forces of the whole environment.Footnote 11 It appears to be a solid plan, based on preliminary observations. Nevertheless, as Hambrick and FredricksonFootnote 12 ask in their seminal article: Are you sure you have a strategy?

Conceptually, answering this question should provide DND/CAF with the in-depth understanding necessary to focus on areas for improvement to sustain SSE. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the significant disruption in social and governmental affairs that it has caused, is anticipated to affect DND funding in the mid-term.Footnote 13 This too will require the defence community to understand what SSE can or cannot provide. Consequently, the debate surrounding SSE will only intensify in the months ahead. I believe looking back at the defence strategy as it was released in June 2017 can only help DND/CAF to face both the present and the future.

A Strategy for Organizational Coherence

Hambrick and Fredrickson posit strategy as “an integrated, overarching concept of how the business will achieve its objective”.Footnote 14 They propose a framework for the design of strategy that considers five major elements, each answering a question: Arenas – Where will we be active and with how much emphasis? Vehicles – How will we get there? Differentiators – How will we win the marketplace? Staging – What will be our speed and sequence of moves? Economic logic – How will we obtain our returns?Footnote 15 Strategy is the narrowed ensemble of intentions, choices, and targets arrived at from analysis. It is how the organization endeavours to reach goals by re-arranging internally to develop and integrate dynamic capabilities and/or acquire additional capabilities and/or capacity that are characterized as the deliberation and implementation of goals.Footnote 16 Dynamic capabilities are the managerial mixing and matching and scaffolding of existing competencies to produce new ones.Footnote 17 Hambrick and Fredrickson’s theory also identifies strategy as a make-or-break journey. Success depends on how the five elements have merit and cohere. In other words, how they are integrated, in and of themselves answers each of the questions.

So, in what ways is Canada’s defence strategy conforming to the prescriptions outlined in the Hambrick and Fredrickson’s framework for strategy design (Figure 1)? What are the related similarities and differences and their implications?

Adapted from Hambrick, D.C., & Fredrickson, J.W. (2001), Are you sure you have a strategy? Academy of Management Executive, 19(4), 51-62.

Figure 1: Donald Hambrick and James Fredrickson Strategy Diamond.

Click to enlarge image

Five Elements of Strategy


Arenas are positions of competitive advantage. They connect with the product categories, core technologies, and value-creation stages, i.e., product design, manufacturing, selling, and so on that an organization intends on using or developing to achieve and maintain advantageous market positions. Arenas are further linked to geographic areas, for instance a company enlarging its product distribution and offering to care for customers at some location(s) outside its usual reach. Arenas should be specific for the organization to mobilize its workforce and other resources towards clear goals and destinations.Footnote 18

SSE has eight core missions representing four arenas: Assistance to civil authorities; detect, deter, and defend against threats; conduct search and rescue; and contribute expeditionary forces. For operations abroad specifically, the defence strategy articulates the requirement for CAF to contribute six mission sets and be prepared to employ all six simultaneously. SSE explains each broadly in terms of function, the approximate number of personnel involved, and duration of deployment.Footnote 19

Corporal David Veldman / Canadian Armed Forces

The 1st Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf sails in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, during a proficiency sail, 16 November 2020.

The four arenas extracted from SSE indicate a measure of conformity to Hambrick and Fredrickson. Nevertheless, SSE arenas lack specificity, which expose the defence strategy and its implied transformation to “corruption, which means that changes [could] appear to have been made”,Footnote 20 but in fact reinforces the status quo. For instance, one mission set is described as a “limited deployment of 500-1500 personnel for 6-9 months”.Footnote 21 Such a general task statement allows for a more granular solution to emerge from the organization’s “expertise and creativity”.Footnote 22 However, SSE differs from Hambrick and Fredrickson, who require arenas “to be as precise as possible”.Footnote 23 The CAF have worked since 2017 on preparing a viable solutionFootnote 24 to employ concurrently all six expeditionary operations, correctly adding precision to arenas. However, a sustainable plan has yet to be published.


Vehicles are the means to enter arenas. They are the internal changes, the creation of dynamic capabilities based on existing competencies that enable the phased pursuit of the successive and interconnected goals leading to mission attainment.Footnote 25 Goals are prescriptive or descriptive, in other words planned or emergent.Footnote 26 Vehicles are the acquisition or re-arrangement of new or existing ability “to mitigate external resource dependencies”.Footnote 27

SSE is prescriptive. It connects strategy to desired outcomes, specifically 111 initiatives or goals split in the following main categories:Footnote 28 Materiel investments, such as the acquisition of five to six Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships for the surveillance of the Northwest Passage; a re-affirmation of Canada’s commitment to multilateralism; the need for a system-of-systems approach, such as procuring and integrating additional Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities to enhance coherence amongst CAF actors; the clarification of roles between the larger CAF components, for instance solely assigning to Reserve Force units the function of Light Urban Search and Rescue; and hiring additional DND personnel, along with other strategic human resource management (SHRM) initiatives, for example the “promotion of diversity and inclusion as a core institutional value”.Footnote 29 In order to transform DND’s existing competencies to meet this ambitious challenge, SSE prescribes a new overarching approach: Anticipate, Adapt and Act, represented as a fundamentally different way “to deliver tangible results by launching a range of initiatives”.Footnote 30

Cpl Manuela Berger / DND photo

In support of the Province of Alberta, members of 417 Combat Support Squadron prepare to depart for Fort McMurray at 4 Hangar, 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, 4 May 2016.

As a result, SSE initiatives are numerous, however some are detailed while others are not. They represent end goals more than vehicles, which are supposed to enable arenas to be reached. Such a large scope of initiatives (111) also demands the internal development of dynamic capabilities. On this aspect though, SSE is silent, as if the identification of distant targets suffices. In fact, “overall goals [should] provide a direction for subordinate goals in the sense of a target cascade”.Footnote 31 For instance, stating that “the CAF is committed to further increasing the representation of women in the military towards a goal of 25 per cent in 10 years”Footnote 32 does not specify how to get there. Also, despite eliciting a tangible mindset for practitioners, the new CAF Anticipate, Adapt and Act, remains conceptual. And this is bound to solidify previous practices rather than mobilize the CAF leadership to generate change. Just as it does to arenas, Hambrick and Fredrickson’s question as it relates to vehicles is answered only in part.


Differentiators are actions or plays that change the game. Like all elements of strategy, they require a comprehensive understanding of the external environment. Differentiators should be “mutually reinforcing, consistent with the firm’s resources and capabilities, and of course highly valued in the arenas”.Footnote 33 In the CAF, they signify the alignment of the institutional ethos and image to serve Canadian interests. A differentiator is an organization’s ability to sustain its positional advantage, to keep the game going.

Corporal Valerie Côté / DND photo

Canadian Armed Forces members arrive at the Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, Nuclear (CBRN) decontamination point during Exercise SILVER ARROW at Adazi Military Training Area during Operation REASSURANCE in Kadaga, Latvia, 27 September 2015.

SSE recognizes that “investing in our people is the single most important commitment we can make”,Footnote 34 for the profession of arms imposes service before self and therefore unlimited liability on CAF members and their family. It also recognizes that a similar stress is imposed on public servants. Twenty-eight of the 111 initiatives aim to ensure “well-supported, diverse, resilient people [CAF members] and families”.Footnote 35 The defence strategy rightly singles out the recruiting, training, employing, and retaining of quality DND personnel. In all, SSE chooses its workforce as the differentiator for the CAF to align its competencies, to gain and maintain a competitive edge in the arenas. That is, DND makes it mostly an internal affairFootnote 36 of “human actors making the system respond”,Footnote 37 which matches contingency theory, i.e., the organization adapts to external influences by rationalizing internal fit.

Nonetheless, in spite of these 28 initiatives that relate to the CAF workforce as its differentiator, only one third are SMART,Footnote 38 while the rest lack immediate applicability. For example, the general CAF SHRM initiative “to reduce significantly the time to enroll … by reforming all aspects of military recruiting”Footnote 39 is likely to get lost in the thrall of bureaucratic confusion. So, Hambrick and Fredrickson’s differentiators as an element of the defence strategy lack clarity. For this reason, SSE is not achieving the gardener test of strategy, i.e., “can it be translated…[so] that the gardener…[knows] about what he/she must do differently”.Footnote 40 Three years after SSE was published, it should translate tangibly into each CAF member’s situation in the organization, but it is still a distant proposition for the soldier.


Staging is akin to Camillus’ “(1) distinct stages in the process of converting strategy into action and (2) distinct ways in which these stages can be linked”.Footnote 41 Staging depends on resources. As a result, not all initiatives can or should be implemented at the same time, as the development of some vehicles might influence others. The entry of vehicles into arenas might be time-sensitive too. Consequently, staging is associated with trade-offs, deemed essential for the sustainability of strategy.Footnote 42 Adequate staging procures the organization with the visibility and legitimacy early in the strategy-implementation process to influence and entice other stakeholders to join in.Footnote 43

Canada’s defence strategy spans 20 years and risks experiencing fatigue. Again, SSE discusses some initiatives at length, others more briefly. As an example, the integration of women in “all defence activities across the CAF and DND”,Footnote 44 notably by implementing Gender-Based Analysis (GBA), is the object of comprehensive explanations; five initiatives altogether talk about the inclusion of women and GBA indirectly. On the other hand, “Improve Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE)…”Footnote 45 is hardly broached other than to state what the initiative is. Would it consequently seem correct to infer that the integration of women trumps CBRNE? However, SSE initiatives are not ranked in importance, nor are their relationships to one another or to the arenas specified. The defence strategy does not prioritize nor sequence these activities.

Lockheed Martin

Concept rendering of the Canadian Surface Combatant.

Thus, SSE differs from what Hambrick and Fredrickson advocate as proper staging. Despite the fact that “the concept of strategy is rooted in stability, so much focusses on change”,Footnote 46 which implies sequencing moves and activities by considering time, effort, and task dependencies. The strategy omits all of the above, as if it were a static enterprise. SSE’s implementation has undoubtedly progressed since 2017. However, short of having a clear path to realization—the phased pursuit of the successive and interconnected goals mentioned earlier—DND/CAF is in a “participation only” mode, as opposed to owning the strategy completely. Such “participative strategies either waste critical resources by unnecessarily involving people or take a limited view of the participation necessary for success”.Footnote 47 Further, DND’s inclination towards using its existing functional set up, vertically integrated and imbued with the old business identity and norms, likely inhibits the additional unity of effort required of SSE, which compounds this “participation only” effect. Once more, where is the establishment of a commensurate and permanent dynamic capability solely dedicated to SSE’s integration?

Economic Logic

Strategies that yield the most return have “a central economic logic … as the fulcrum of profit [value] creation”.Footnote 48 How to lower costs and maximize profit margins are what preoccupies the industry. For a public organization, this logic only considers funding versus value,Footnote 49 linked to: economies of scale; finding efficiencies and savings; and accurate longer-term business planning that considers the implementation of strategy initiatives on an accrual basis.

SSE costed its 111 initiatives. It is committed to maintaining both commitment and funding over the full 20 years, in all $62.3 billion of new funding on a cash basis, meaning that funding is available at the time needed.Footnote 50 This innovative method shields defence investments from cuts, a change in the way allocations fluctuated in the past from one year to the next. Nevertheless, SSE’s economic logic is all numbers and limited explanations, let alone a detailed description of how such estimates were calculated.

As for economies of scale, SSE planned for the acquisition of numerous technologically advanced combat platforms: 15 Canadian Surface Combatants and two Joint Support Ships to replace the aging fleet currently in service.Footnote 51 This signals business opportunities, as well as increasing interest and competition within the defence industry, which means DND has more product options at better pricing.

DND photo

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Victoria departs Her Majesty Canadian Dockyard Esquimalt, 14 February 2014.

On the one hand, to find efficiencies and savings, SSE offers little logic. It is akin to an investment portfolio, for instance SSE directing an increase of 5,000 Regular and Reserve Force soldiers combined.Footnote 52 Adding personnel is but one aspect of restructuring the organization, as finding efficiencies entails a more comprehensive structural re-alignment, which is left out of SSE completely.

On the other hand, as it pertains to the business component of the department, i.e., procurement, infrastructure, innovation, and greening, SSE offers more. The Government of Canada recognizes that “cumbersome decision-making and approval process have introduced undue delays” in procurement and especially the delivery of major equipment projects and that “accountability between departments has been diffuse and at times unclear”,Footnote 53 thus causing missed opportunities. So, to gain efficiency and save, DND is working to increase its contracting authority to manage 80 per cent of defence procurement contracts solely,Footnote 54 instead of relying on another federal department, namely the Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Notwithstanding DND’s not-for-profit character, Hambrick and Fredrickson’s economic logic is addressed well by SSE. Having said that, it is a funding exercise rather than an extensive restructure of the enterprise in terms of a new economic logic that is concerned with savings too; hence, it only partially answers the authors’ question on how to optimize economic returns. Considering that a “strategy-in-practice perspective is concerned with how … [the] multiple organizational levels affect strategic outcomes”,Footnote 55 SSE does not address the economic logic comprehensively, which is likely to cause waste either through misguided excitement or contradictory actions in spending public funds.


Findings and Implications

SSE covers the five major elements of strategy defined by Hambrick and Fredrickson with varying prominence, except that staging is missing almost entirely. In all, the defence strategy is compelling. It provides the global context, which allows DND/CAF to have a needs-based positioning and find purpose.Footnote 56 The detailed portrait of the external environment presented by SSE—from discussing state competition in the space and cyber domains to the changing Arctic and moreFootnote 57—is the external fit or beacon that serves the organization’s internal fit development.Footnote 58

In addition, the fact that SSE identified arenas is praiseworthy. Before 2017, troops and equipment were employed, first coinciding with a smaller core of traditional and critical tasks, for instance territorial sovereignty, then committed to other mission sets based on feasibility and availability of resources, which makes the CAF a permanent resource-dependency problem to solve. By establishing arenas, DND is staking out SSE’s terrain. Nevertheless, SSE arenas lack granularity. The mosaic of broadly defined arenas represented by the eight core missions cannot inform completely how “to best craft strategic plans or develop dynamic capabilities”.Footnote 59 This SSE deviation from the Hambrick and Fredrickson framework implies additional confusion over the already wide-ranging Anticipate, Adapt and Act approach and the massive realization of SSE’s 111 initiatives; hence the need for DND to enact an overarching detailed strategic plan to complement the incomplete defence strategy.

As for vehicles, like arenas, SSE partially conforms to the conceptual framework. As inferred from SSE, DND relies on its pre-2017 organization and competencies for their implementation instead of creating new institutional logics, including dynamic capabilities, to supplement the old logic. This signifies the unlikely sustainment of the transformation. As an example, throughout 2020, DND could not find enough project managers with the requisite competence to implement SSE’s ambitious materiel acquisition program efficiently. This is just one of many factors that complicate the procurement of equipment, and “capital spending thus far is falling short of expectations”.Footnote 60

The defence strategy picks quality DND personnel as its principal differentiator. Undoubtedly, “leveraging Canada’s diversity” and “promoting a culture of leadership, respect, and honour”,Footnote 61 are worth investing in. But the numerous SHRM initiatives set forth in SSE, albeit relevant from a macro perspective, lack clarity, which is a recurring theme. As a result, the whole SHRM transformation represents both, opportunities and threats, which makes it SSE’s single point of failure, thus necessitating increased attention, especially as it relates to the CAF ethos/profession of arms, and more importantly its preservation. Acquiring and retaining DND personnel is an unwavering challenge that is likely to continue to escalate, given the intensifying flux and growing complexity of the external environment. Moreover, a significant percentage of CAF members remain unfit for combat duty, which contradicts the organization’s very purpose and the related readiness culture that it is trying to maintain, and strains the CAF’s overall effectiveness. So, there exists an inherent difficulty and tension in reconciling SHRM initiatives with this readiness imperative, which adds further to the unwavering challenge of attracting/retaining quality personnel.

Corporal Richard Lessard / DND photo

Members of Operation PRESENCE-Mali conduct their eleventh aeromedical evacuation mission, treating two civilian contractors involved in an IED attack before transferring the casualties to a MINUSMA Role 2 hospital in Gao, near Camp Castor, 16 August 2019.

As for staging, SSE is found wanting. Strategy is in the organization’s activities,Footnote 62 how they are linked by a target hierarchy of predetermined goals,Footnote 63 and how they are monitored and controlled in time with key performance indicators. SSE provides for Hambrick and Fredrickson’s arenas, vehicles, and differentiators, but fails to prioritize and sequence it all. What is more important? “15. Augment the CAF Health System…”Footnote 64 or “31. Operate and modernize the four Victoria-class submarines”?Footnote 65 When everything is a priority, nothing is. For the defence strategy, this indicates a potential misalignment of priorities and difficult synchronization of activities ahead, adding to the waste previously mentioned, specifically the misuse (or underuse) of departmental resources. As well, given the COVID-19 pandemic’s strain on the federal government and its likely impact on DND funding over the medium-term, prioritizing SSE activities should not wait.Footnote 66

Lastly, economic logic is SSE’s strength, for it sets aside the necessary funding for the strategy’s entire realization. SSE is also intent on tangibly improving the internal business component of DND, as well as the department’s relationships with the defence industry. This logic makes sense, however there are gaps. SSE is an investment exercise that is unconcerned with savings. The total re-alignment of financial structures and resource allocation still corresponds to pre-2017 institutional logic, except for an increase in the availability of capital funding. This too should generate friction amongst the CAF leadership during implementation and dilute accountability altogether by, for example, ignoring the provisioning of ammunition to support SSE’s six mission sets.

Overall, “all five [elements of strategy] require certain capabilities that cannot be generated spontaneously” and they should be “considered the hub or central nodes for designing a comprehensive, integrated activity system”,Footnote 67 which SSE has for the most part overlooked. However, SSE is ambitious and qualifies as a strategy.


The findings in this article are meant only for the defence and security community to think critically about SSE, so as to improve its implementation. Additional research is needed to validate these findings. Hambrick and Frederickson’s conceptual framework for strategy design is one among many, its cogency to an extent assumed, while it might not fully apply to the military context. Moreover, SSE is a keystone document of a political nature more than a comprehensive strategy; therefore, it intentionally eschews the full details to be developed. Lastly, since 2017, the vast scope of Canada’s defence strategy notwithstanding, valuable work has started in many places and the minutiae of progress, as well as the benefits already realized so far, remain partially unknown.


The five major elements of strategy by Hambrick and Frederickson proved an adequate framework to assess SSE 2017. SSE addresses all their elements, albeit to varying degrees. Between staging, which is almost absent, and economic logic, which is better addressed, this article’s assessment of SSE discovered both strengths and weaknesses, by identifying what needs to be improved. So, despite this article being inclined to discover the implications of SSE as it deviates from a theory, Canada has an ambitious and to a large extent coherent defence strategy with overall merit. Nevertheless, DND should be concerned with crafting a detailed integrated strategic plan to include the development of dynamic capabilities for its implementation, so as to supplement SSE and care for the deficiencies exposed. Finally, this study’s findings and relevance are even more salient now, given the disruption in social and governmental affairs that COVID-19 has caused and the anticipated impact to SSE’s funding in the medium term.

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