All strategy is relative

The word strategy has undergone much inflation in recent years. There is no strategy deficit; today, everyone is a strategist. The word is employed promiscuously as a value-enhancing qualifier: a strategy for tax preparation, for breastfeeding, for losing weight. The word has been drained of meaning.

In the business world, books about strategy are legion. For instance, airport bookshops, as any regular traveler knows, are replete with books on successful business strategies that make extravagant promises. The road to strategy is paved with platitudes in these popular books: Think outside the Box, Break Down Siloes, Move the Needle, Paradigm Shift, Low Hanging Fruit, and Aim High, so if you miss you won’t shoot your foot off.

When reading books on business strategy that offer prescriptions for managers, often one comes away with the uneasy sense that each author has defined the term in self-serving ways to support whatever management shtick he or she happens to be promoting, creating a strategic straightjacket, if not a cottage industry, with thoughts that don’t extend much beyond the drabbest clichés.

In this context, strategy may seem like nothing more than an impressive label pasted on an author’s pet idea to boost sales of his or her book. As the late Peter Drucker, a widely noted management consultant, educator, and prolific author once commented, “I have been saying for many years that we are using the word ‘guru’ because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit in a headline.”

Put simply, strategy is aligning means with ends, and the trick is getting the proportions right. The alignment, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. The question that haunts every strategy is “how”. How do you get from means to ends? It is always the how before the who and why. Strategy happens in the space between means and ends. It is the relationship that unfolds at the intersection of the two.

Consider an example from the wide world of sports: regardless of the quality of its players, no National Football League team can hope to reach the Super Bowl without an effective strategy to guide its performance. The ability to develop and implement a strategy is the secret to success for such coaching icons such as Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi and of course, Bill Belichick.

They all understood the importance of beginning each season with a strategy that incorporates everything knowable at the time about the performance potential of their own players and how best to exploit these resources, plus the potential of opposing players and how best to defuse it. Not to be overlooked is that the competition gets a vote. And all this knowledge is written down (along with accompanying tables and diagrams) in thick playbooks.

But they also understood that no pre-season strategy is ever carved in stone. It must be continually revised in response to the inevitability of events that can never be anticipated—like injuries to key players and to those on opposing teams, the unexpected emergence of star rookies and the mystical ability of battered old pros to somehow pull it together one more time as the season unfolds.

To quote the justly criticized former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “stuff happens”. No meaningful National Football League strategy ever has a half-life of more than a week or so. Top coaches know this. They even welcome it because of the fresh opportunities it can bring.

The dirty little secret they understand is that you don’t have to get your strategy perfectly right, as long as it’s not so far wrong you cannot put it right quickly. If the competition has a poor strategy, your strategy only has to be less poor. Strategy is a relative venture.

Finally, it is always useful to remember Damon Runyon’s advice: “Maybe the race isn’t always to the swift. Or the battle to the strong. But that’s still the way to bet.”

Originally Published: March 16, 2019


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


Civil and military success depend on developing and adapting strategy

Developing strategy is too often thought of as a by-the-book, one-shot undertaking to provide managers with a comprehensive roadmap that is supposed to cover all eventualities. But in the real world, this is scarcely the case.

Instead, developing an effective strategy is a relatively messy process that involves evaluating everything we know about the external environment at any given time, designing a realistic way to achieve long-term goals, constantly monitoring for changes in the environment, and revising strategies as they are being executed to take such changes into account. Strategy must reflect reality, not what you think the world ought to be like.

As proposals to invest in transportation and other infrastructure currently making headlines, military history provides essential background for those attempting to develop effective strategies for such large undertakings. Without this background, they’re like techno-wannabes trying to do engineering without have studied physics.

As the United States approaches the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, we should remember lessons the military has taught us: How to properly develop a strategy, why it must be regarded as an ongoing process, and how it must respect changing realities.

Just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, killing more than 2,000 and wounding another 1,000. Sixteen battleships, cruisers, and other warships were sunk or disabled in the attack, but all-important fuel storage and ship repair facilities were left untouched. This omission allowed Pearl Harbor to continue as a forward base for American naval power in the Pacific.

When President Roosevelt delivered his “Day of Infamy” speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan the next day, the federal government already had a detailed game plan for defeating Japan in the Pacific. It was known as War Plan Orange and had been under development by the U.S. Navy since 1905.

The Navy began this effort and carried it forward in response to growing awareness that the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War was likely to create conflicts with Japan in the western Pacific that could eventually lead to war.

By 1941 War Plan Orange had undergone many revisions and updates to reflect changing political and tactical realities such as the emergence of the aircraft carrier as a naval weapons system that had the potential to become as important as the battleship.

The game plan contained extensive detail about the numbers and types of fighting personnel that would be required to carry out the strategy, and how to recruit, organize and train them. Finally, it detailed the types and quantities of weapons and equipment that would be needed, how to produce them, what kinds and quantities of raw materials their production would require and how and where to allocate them in the theater of war for maximum effect.

It was all there in black and white. And as history has demonstrated, War Plan Orange reflected what actually happened. It was indeed the blueprint for the campaigns that eventually defeated Japan in 1945.

War Plan Orange guided the U.S. to victory over Japan less than four years after Pearl Harbor. This was less than half the time the U.S. spent in Vietnam, and far shorter than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It began as a sound strategy and was flexible enough to roll with the punches from events that strategists were unable to anticipate.

Clearly, the United States needs this kind of strategic focus at all levels of government if efforts to address major domestic and foreign policy issues are to succeed. Otherwise the country risks missing worthwhile opportunities, doing new projects and programs without proper coordination, and spending a lot of money just to make things worse.

As a new administration comes into power, it would be wise to recall that, as former President Eisenhower wisely remarked, “Plans may be irrelevant, but planning is essential.”

Originally Published: November 26, 2016

Reasons so many politicians don’t tell the truth

More than a dozen Republicans and a handful of Democrats have announced they are running for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. The campaign will flood the airwaves with grand promises that ought to be taken with a large dose of salt. Americans should have learned by now that telling the truth is a liability in politics. Perhaps one reason truth is a liability is that, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, Americans cannot bear too much reality.

The candidates will talk endlessly about a long list of profound problems facing the country. They will remind everyone that until quite recently, the U.S. was widely regarded as an irresistible juggernaut, dominating the global landscape and that it must continue to lead in a world it has helped to make more dangerous. They will simplify the complex demands of pressing, interconnected problems as if each can be solved simultaneously despite constrained resources and the need to engage in trade-offs.

But turning their promises into reality will require something that has been sorely missing in recent years: a strategy.

Leadership is required to make hard choices in a systemic, coordinated, considered manner. Everyone’s wants and needs can never be satisfied, regardless of the rosy campaign rhetoric. Some things are more important than others, even though politicians are reluctant to be explicit. An overarching strategy can identify and prioritize what is important.

The American people will decide who among these candidates has the shortest learning curve and best grasps the challenges facing the country as it comes to terms with new economic, social, and geo­ political realities such as the erosion in U.S. economic dominance and increasing global economic parity. Sure, some fraying at the edges of America’s economic hegemony was to be expected since it spent much treasure in planting the seeds of market capitalism as part of the fight against communism. Is it any wonder that others are catching up?

America’s domestic and foreign issues are tightly connected. For example, a weak economy leaves America in an appreciably weaker position to pursue foreign policy goals and keep its citizens secure. The voters must answer a fundamental question: who is capable of crafting the kind of overarching strategy that has been missing as America have stumbled from one crisis to the next?

Anyone running an enterprise knows that strategy matters. At its core, strategy is about creating and exploiting competitive advantage and adapting to the external environment; the ability to do something the competition cannot do based on your unique set of resources and strengths. How will these candidates make good on their promises and use America’s strengths to capitalize on external opportunities, while mitigating the threats and minimizing weaknesses in an increasingly competitive, dangerous, complicated and fluid global environment?

The good news is that America has plenty of strengths to leverage. Consider it is the world’s largest exporter of food; it has a per capita GDP over five times that of China; it has 17 of the world’s top 20 research universities; it has robust capital markets; and an entrepreneurial culture that excels in the kind of technological innovation that has made it possible to produce enough energy to be on its way to self­ sufficiency. Also, America has more favorable demographics than any of its most important economic competitors. And it is the economy that keeps American strong and powerful.

A grand strategy doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to avoid being so wrong that it can’t be put right. Recent history teaches that it makes more sense to adapt strategy along the way than to try and control the dynamic global environment, only to stumble from crisis to crisis, stretching and wasting precious resources along the way.

Given the rough and tumble of global competition, it might also be wise to remember Mike Tyson’s observation: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Originally Published: July 18, 2015

A day that should live in infamy

Early in 1941, the government of resource-poor Japan realized that it needed to seize control of the petroleum and other raw material sources in the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina and the Malay Peninsula. Doing that would require neutralizing the threat posed by the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The government assigned this task to the Imperial Navy, whose combined fleet was headed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The Imperial Navy had two strategic alternatives for neutralizing the U.S. Pacific Fleet. One was to cripple the fleet itself through a direct attack on its warships,  or cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as the fleet’s forward base in the Pacific.

Crippling the U.S. fleet would require disabling the eight battleships that made up the fleet’s traditional battle line. It was quite a tall order.

The most effective way to cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as a naval base would be to destroy its fuel storage and ship repair facilities. Without them, the Pacific Fleet would have to return to the U.S., where it could no longer deter Japanese military expansion in the region during the year or so it would take to rebuild Pearl Harbor.

It soon became apparent that the basics of either strategy could be carried out through a surprise air raid launched from the Imperial Navy’s six first-line aircraft carriers. Admiral Yamamoto had a reputation as an expert poker player, gained during his years of study at Harvard and as an Imperial Navy naval attache in Washington. He decided to attack the U.S. warships that were moored each weekend in Pearl Harbor. But in this case the expert poker player picked the wrong target.

The Imperial Navy’s model for everything it did was the British Royal Navy. Standard histories of the Royal Navy emphasized its victories in spectacular naval battles.

Lost in the shuffle was any serious consideration of trying to cripple Pearl Harbor’s  ability to function as a forward naval base. So it was that, in one of history’s finest displays of tactical management, six of the world’s best aircraft carriers furtively approached the Hawaiian Islands from the north just before dawn that fateful Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, launched their planes into the rising sun, caught the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its pants down and wrought havoc in spectacular fashion. On paper at least, this rivaled the British Royal Navy’s triumph at Trafalgar.

But so what?

The American battleships at Pearl Harbor were slow-moving antiques from the World War I era. As we know, the U.S. Navy already had two brand new battleships in its Atlantic Fleet that could run rings around them. And eight new ones the navy was building were even better.

More importantly, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers weren’t at Pearl Harbor. American shipyards were already building 10 modem carriers whose planes would later devastate Imperial Navy forces in the air/sea battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.

Most importantly, as the sun set on Dec. 7 and the U.S. Navy gathered the bodies of its 2,117 sailors and Marines killed that day, all-important fuel storage and ship repair facilities remained untouched by Japanese bombs, allowing Pearl Harbor to continue as a forward base for American naval power in the Pacific.

So in reality, Dec. 7 marked the sunset of Japan’s extravagant ambitions to dominate Asia. Admiral Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy’s other tradition-bound leaders chose the wrong targets at Pearl Harbor.

The dictates of tradition are usually the worst guides to follow when it comes doing anything really important. After all, if they survived long enough to be venerated, they’re probably obsolete.

originally published: December 6, 2014