The slightly disappointing hallmarks of great strategy
Stories about strategy are mostly told with the neatness of hindsight. Glorious, insightful and complex schemes that deliver the expected results after a moment of maximum tension. Reality is less well scripted.
In part one, I claimed that a lot of what is presented as strategic is nothing of the sort. To recap: a strategy is a guide to action. It connects actions to goals via a belief about how things work. We only need such a guide if there is a big gap between goals and actions: if the right actions are unclear or difficult.
In this section, I want to set out the hallmarks of great strategy. It follows from the definition above that, second only to being right, the main consideration for strategy is its relationship to execution. It has to guide action. If you can’t execute a strategy, then it is worthless.
Have you ever watched a heist movie where the caper depends on perfect success in every one of a large number of improbable steps? Do you ever think, if that guard had walked by ten seconds later everything would have collapsed? In the real world, the guard always walks by ten seconds later.
Military strategists like Clausewitz have long drawn our attention to the inherent friction involved in conflict and the famous ‘fog of war’. These warnings apply to all forms of collective, complex and extended action.
The exact content of a strategy will depend on the situation at hand, but effective strategies will therefore be simple and robust, practical and palatable.
This is why the best strategies can be a little disappointing. They are rarely complicated, daring or entirely ruthless. The need to do any of these things may be a sign of near failure. They don’t make great movies. They don’t rely on a single high-stakes gamble. They aren’t impenetrable or mysterious to those implementing them.
Great strategy often feels a little banal when explained. What was Churchill’s strategy during the Second World War? Hold on until the USA can be persuaded to join?
The hard work happens behind the scenes. You need insight to discover the pivot point in a situation. You need courage to stick to your convictions. You must be subtle to align the politics and practicalities. “Everything in strategy is very simple,” says Clausewitz, “but that does not mean that everything is very easy.”
Simple means an intense focus on the pivotal factors at play in the situation. Concentration of force has been a feature of military thinking and applies to all forms of strategy. Where is the weak spot? What is the key driver? If you could only do one thing? This is where the risk comes in and where you will devote most thought. Some of the best school improvement strategies are incredibly simple: work hard and be kind.
Robust means resilient to the unexpected. I can explain it no better than General Mattis on Clausewitz: “The trinity of chance, uncertainty and friction will continue to characterise war and will make anticipation of even the first-order consequences of military action highly conjectural.”
Practical is the alignment between means and ends. In an ideal world, goals would solely drive strategy. The embarrassing truth is that often our goals are determined by the means at hand. We do what we can with what we have. If that changes our ambitions, so be it.
Palatable means a course of action which sustains the consent of stakeholders for the duration. Yes, victory carries a momentum of its own. But there’s often a gap between action and result. And even winning generals can pay a high price for their victories. Returning to Clausewitz, he said that war was the continuation of policy by other means. Strategy does not operate in a separate sphere from politics. A good strategist will play politics.
A strategy which attempts to cover every base will dissipate energy and resources. A strategy which needs everything to go perfectly will be defunct within minutes of launch. A strategy which is beyond your means is no more than a fantasy. And a strategy which horrifies, alienates or disappoints ‘the bosses’ will not last long enough to prove itself.
As an aside (which really belongs in the domain of execution) robust strategies are well communicated and passed on with substantial discretion to the frontline to interpret and adjust to the unexpected given their understanding of the intent. This is why robust strategies are rarely mysterious. Simplicity is also an aid to communication.
A good strategy embodies a true belief about the world. But it is more than that. It must get to the heart of the matter, directing limited resources to the point of maximum impact. It must anticipate friction. And it must be realistic – both in terms of practical means and the politics of the situation. None of this needs a military genius but it does need hard thought. It also demands engagement with the resources and the circumstances, and with the people who will make it work. It really takes bitter experience of execution to truly design great strategy.
This experience also tells us that we often make mistakes with strategy. The ability to learn and improve – as our actions take us closer to or further from our goals – is the final attribute of the great strategist. If you can learn from other people’s mistakes rather than your own, so much the better.
See part one: Strategy 1: it is not a euphemism for important