State Policy Network
The DNA of Strategy: A Guide to Understanding the Elements of Strategy and How to Use Them to Win

By Todd Davidson, Vice President of Programs

A think tank exists to solve problems in society. But when advocating for a solution, an organization may face opposition, and surprises will arise, thwarting its carefully laid, step-by-step plans.

To be successful, you cannot rely on static plans. You need a strategy. Better strategy will empower you to attain more wins, while saving time, money, and energy for your next win.

Strategy is the use of capabilities to achieve an objective, considering factors in the environment. This definition leads us to the “DNA of strategy,” or the three elements that, together, make up strategy: objective, environment, and capabilities.

Good strategy identifies a logical connection between a realistic objective, the environment, and the limited capabilities available. The best strategy achieves the highest attainable objective, given the particular capabilities and environment. Bad strategies aim to achieve unrealistic objectives, given inherently limited capabilities and an uncertain environment.

Whether a strategy is good or bad hinges on practitioners’ understanding of capabilities, environment, and objectives, as well as how the three parts are connected. So, much of strategy is just making sense of these three parts. This guide will walk you through these three parts to help you assess the strategic landscape and develop a quality strategy.

The DNA of Strategy: A Quick Guide

Element #1: Your Objective

Your objective is a particular change you, as a think tank advocate, seek to make. Organizations have a hierarchy of objectives, ranging from high-level goals, such as a vision, to specific policy wins to tactical aims, such as moving audiences or completing projects and tasks. Here are some examples of objectives at different levels:

The DNA of Strategy framework works for any of these levels. The first step is to draft an objective. Once you’ve formulated your objective, hold it loosely, as you may need to change it depending on your analysis of your capabilities and environment.

Element #2: Your Environment

The environment is the area in which you operate to achieve your objectives. It includes societal forces, audiences, policymakers, and institutions.

The relevant environment varies widely depending on your objective. If your objective includes a policy change, your relevant environment includes the policy-making processes (e.g., the legislative process), the various policymakers, and those who influence policymakers. If your objective is to motivate an audience, your environment includes the channels necessary to reach that audience, the issues that affect that audience, and a strong understanding of the audience’s needs and wants.  

Once you identify your environment, you scan your environment for opportunities, obstacles, and threats. By seizing opportunities, you achieve your objective with less effort. Obstacles are hindrances that favor the status quo. Threats seek to undermine your entire strategy or even organization. A good strategy will account for all three variables.

Element #3: Your Capabilities

Capabilities are the tools, actions, teams, and anything else you control. Use them to influence or navigate your environment to achieve your objectives.

For think tanks and state-based advocacy organizations, there is a growing catalog of potential capabilities, including:

  1. Fundraising: Generating philanthropic support to ensure your work can happen in the first place.
  2. Research: Making the case for your ideas and innovating policy solutions.
  3. Communications: Developing your brand, messaging, and the story behind why your organization or your policy solution is needed.
  4. Marketing: Building audiences and inspire them to act.
  5. Government Affairs: Building relationships with lawmakers and educating them so that good policy ideas can become law.
  6. Executive Outreach: Working alongside administrations to implement good policy solutions.
  7. Coalitions: Collaborating with other organizations or community leaders to advance a policy solution.
  8. Litigation: Advancing and protecting people, their rights, and ideas through the courts.
  9. Media Platform: Providing an alternative source for trustworthy daily news and analytical content. Organizations have pursued this capability to fill the void left by the decline of local journalism.
  10. Grassroots: Activating a base of people who support a policy reform or cause.
  11. Community Engagement: Listening to diverse perspectives and stories in your communities. Helps check assumptions, expand limited viewpoints, and identify problems and solutions to advocate for.
  12. Bureaucratic Engagement: Working directly with bureaucracy or agencies on the details of processed and regulations.
  13. Ballot Initiatives: Using a state’s ballot initiative process to advance a solution and campaigning to get a given initiative passed.

As with the environment, your objective will determine which of your capabilities are relevant. For example, if your objective is policy change, you will be employing virtually all your capabilities—including research, communications, marketing, government affairs, coalitions, grassroots, and other advocacy capabilities you may have. If your objective is to activate 5,000 constituents, you will zero in on capabilities that reach and motivate those constituents, such as digital marketing and earned media.

There’s an important caveat for capabilities: Many capabilities on the list above come with significant legal compliance considerations. It’s always a good idea for a state think tank or advocacy organization to have legal counsel on hand to advise on the appropriate use or boundaries of certain capabilities.


A strategy is how you use your capabilities to achieve your objective, considering your environment.

Keep in mind that for every objective, you have multiple strategies you could pursue. Good strategies align your capabilities with the opportunities, obstacles, and threats you identify in your environment. The best strategies reinforce each other rather than working against each other.

For example, your government affairs and marketing strategies should be aligned. It’s counterproductive to have an organization’s government affairs arm engaging a lawmaker, while the organization’s marketing strategy attacks that same lawmaker. Conversely, a well-crafted marketing strategy with an effective message can reinforce your government affairs strategy by increasing the political benefits of advancing your policy.

Get Started on Your Own Strategy: DNA of Strategy Worksheet

Our DNA of Strategy Worksheet takes the guesswork out of mapping your own objectives, environments, and capabilities. Download a copy to use for your personal planning, with your team, or as a framework for developing or updating your next organizational strategy.

On smaller browser sizes, the PDF will open in a new tab after clicking “View PDF” for more intuitive interactions with the file.

View PDF Download PDF
Categories: Strategy
Organization: State Policy Network
Professional Topics: Strategy