Strategy defies description

In a famous Hindu parable, three blind men encounter an elephant for the first time and try to describe it, each touching a different part. “An elephant is like a snake,” says one, grasping the trunk. “Nonsense; an elephant is a fan,” says another, who holds an ear. “A tree trunk,” insists a third, feeling his way around a leg.

Similar confusion surrounds the notion of strategy. The word is tossed around promiscuously. The fact that there are so many competing conceptions of strategy suggests that the concept is subjective and ambiguous enough to defy any singular definition.

Strategy is important but it is also wickedly hard to deal with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertain outcomes in a competitive landscape. Getting it right is an uphill struggle, whether in business, athletics, military affairs, politics or other human endeavors. Strategy is an art, not a science.

The confusion surrounding the subject of strategy presents a challenge, especially for students. It requires them to think in interdisciplinary terms, that invariably means finding connections, for as historian Edith Hamilton put it, “to see anything in relation to other things is to see it simplified”. For example, business students struggle to integrate and coordinate various functional areas. They get caught between warring disciplines such as finance, accounting, and marketing. This is especially difficult in an academic environment with the pressure to specialize.

Strategy: the word is beguiling and elusive, but do we really know what it means? Is it as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I know it when I see it”?

To put it simply, strategy is the link that connects resources with a set of realistic and prioritized objectives. Some theorists suggest a practical way to think about strategy is that it is a bridge connecting means to ends and the present to the future. Scratch that. Because the metaphor is at odds with reality. Strategies are far from linear.

There are circles and waves and dead ends and the inevitable influence of chance. But they rarely form a straight line. Events seldom conform to expectations. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the mouth.

The question that haunts every strategy is “how.” How do you get from means to ends? It’s always the how before the who and why. Strategy is the relationship that unfolds at the intersection of means and ends.

Although your objectives may be infinite, available resources are finite. One challenge in developing a successful strategy is to keep goals within resources and not to confuse means with ends. That requires lining up feasible objectives in a queue and making hard decisions about trade-offs.

Strategy is more like having a map. It helps you navigate the distance between means and ends. It transports you from one place to another. It illuminates the competitive landscape with alternative routes. It traverses distance and time. Maps give you greater control over your surroundings. They help you see into the future; what you seek to accomplish and how you should go about it.

Strategy is not fixed; it’s not a blueprint. It is an iterative, continuous process that involves seeking feedback, dealing with surprises, and correcting course when necessary, all while keeping the ultimate objective in view. It is not a three-act play, but more like a soap opera; one thing following another.

Life often goes in a direction not of your choosing. That is why you need to adapt. No strategy is built to last forever. It is wise to allow for considerations of changing circumstances.

Changes in the external environment frequently are a catalyst for strategy. If you are not growing and evolving, you’re standing still and the rest of the world is surging ahead. It is Darwinism at its most refined; you develop the resources that allow you to survive or you just hide. But even that will not last for long.

Originally Published: June 30, 2018


Lessons from the Great War still apply

On June 18, 1914, the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph and heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary empire, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The assassination was the flash point that triggered a global conflict.

The Great War had a kaleidoscope of causes, including mutual defense alliances, imperialism, militarism, and nationalism. Its origins have eerie parallels to the present and hold important lessons for the future, especially for China and the United States. The emergence of China as a major power trying to assert itself has echoes of Germany’s rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was viewed as a threat by Britain, so the theory goes.

The two bullets fired in Sarajevo precipitated an international crisis, as various military alliances were activated, dragging everybody into a devastating global war. At the time of the royal murders, nobody believed it to be the “shot heard round the world,” but Europe went from peace to war in five weeks. As British Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Germany backed Austria after it declared war on Serbia, which was supported by Russia. When Germany then declared war on Russia, France was committed to Russia, and Germany attacked France through Belgium, pulling Britain into the war. Later Japan and the United States entered on the side of Britain, France and Russia, along with Italy, which switched sides in 1915. As Henry Kissinger explained, “the Great Powers managed to construct a diplomatic doomsday machine …” The war to end all wars (until it didn’t), later known as World War I, broke out in the summer of 1914 and was expected to be over by Christmas. Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

But it lasted until Nov. 11, 1918. Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was to be swift, easy and victorious. Those who plan on fighting short wars often end up losing long ones.

By the time World War I ended, nine million had been killed, including over 100,000 American soldiers. Eight million were prisoners or simply missing. Twenty-one million had been wounded and who knows how many were damaged psychologically.

When the guns went silent, the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian empires had collapsed, a new German empire was foiled and France and Great Britain were greatly weakened. The war sowed the seeds of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and communism and World War II. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East and laid the foundation for the chaotic conflicts that continue to plague the region. The Great War was also the catalyst for the coming American century.

China is an economic superpower and is translating economic might into military capabilities roughly in the same league as the United States. It is making a run at dominating northeast Asia through various territorial disputes with Asian neighbors over claims in the contested East and South China seas. By themselves, these neighbors are not powerful enough to check China.

The historical lesson for leaders in both China and regional rivals like Japan is to recognize that growing political and military tensions are a potential flash point.

Given the network of bilateral and collective defense agreements the United States has in the region, supporting its allies could draw the U.S. into disputes with China.

A clash between China and the United States is hardly remote. As recently as 2014, President Obama reaffirmed America’s bilateral defense agreements with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. A lesson from World War I that seems so relevant today is that local conflicts can escalate into a great war.

Originally Published: June 16, 2018

On D-Day, the eyes of the world were on the Allies

In the first days of June 1944, BBC transmitters beamed to the forces of the French Resistance the prearranged signal that indicated the start of the long-awaited naval, air, and land invasion of France that would open a critical second front against Germany.

The 74th anniversary of the Normandy landings is a useful moment to pause, reflect and ensure that the memory of this historic event doesn’t slip away. June 6, 1944 became historical shorthand for a generation of Americans, a date that needs as little explanation as “September 11” does for their progeny.

As General Eisenhower wrote in his June 6 Order of the Day, “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade towards which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”

The Plan for Operation Overlord was codenamed D-Day. The “D” in D-Day is a general term for the start date of any military operation. The Allies selected Normandy as the landing site because it provided the best access to France’s interior.

Operation Overlord was the greatest technical feat of the war. The challenges of mounting a successful landing were daunting. Herculean preparations requiring remarkable coordination among the Allies for Operation Overload had been going on since 1942.

The forces assembled constituted the greatest amphibious force in history. An armada of more than 5,000 ships and landing craft were waiting to transport more than 150,000 British, Canadian, and American troops; 1500 tanks; and thousands of guns, vehicles, and supplies to five beach heads along a 50-mile strip of the heavily fortified Normandy coast. Leading the way were over 300 minesweepers that cleared a path through a minefield that stretched across the English Channel to the Normandy beaches.

The Americans landed to the west on Utah and Omaha beaches, while the British and Canadians landed on the east at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. Allied casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 10,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action, 60 percent of them American. The first 20 minutes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” captures vividly the horrible realities of the landing and the price paid by the soldiers.

They were supported by 12,000 planes, some of which had been systematically destroying bridges and access routes to seal off the invasion area from the interior while others—transports and gliders —prepared to drop paratroopers and demolition teams well behind the beaches to complete the job.

The invasion was a high-risk operation, the outcome of which was by no means certain. The defenders had been preparing their reception for four years, building a formidable Atlantic Wall of concrete, wire, machine guns, mines, and artillery. SS panzer divisions lurked in the wings. As General Rommel famously remarked: “the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive, the fate of Germany depends on the outcome … for the Allies as well as Germany it will be the longest day”.

Despite furious German resistance, the Allies carried the day on June 6 and established a precious beachhead. Once the Wehrmacht recovered from its surprise, resistance was fierce. The Americans could not take Cherbourg, the principal port of the invasion coast for three weeks. The British, who should have entered Caen on the evening of D-Day, fought their way in on D+34 (July 9).

Finally caught in the decisive Battle of the Falaise Pocket, the Germans had nothing to do but run. After that, the road was clear for the race to Paris and the drive for the Rhine. Rommel was right, 11 months later Nazi Germany crumbled onto the scrap heap of history.

D-Day, June 6, 1944, paved the way for the liberation of Europe with countless acts of sacrifice by the men and women of the armed services that still resonate today. Success on the “longest day” marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.

Originally Published:  Jun 2, 2018