Sunday, February 9, 2014


I just read, for the first time in some years, a new book about strategy. I read it from cover to cover, more than 650 pages. So this is not a bad book. It is a new book, an excellent book. It is Strategy: A History, from Lawrence Freedman (Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-932515-3). I like to read about strategy, and I like to read about history.
The great thing about this book that is very well-informed, and it is written by a truly intelligent author. And well-written as well. What can one ask more?
Only one thing: that the writer knows about strategy. I don’t think Freedman knows. It is like a brilliant book about horses and horse riding by one who read more about the subject than possibly anybody else. But apparently he has never seen a life horse and certainly never rode one.
When Freedman writes about strategists, he writes with a superior view on his subject. It is a joy to read his observations and comments on writers like Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli, Von Clausewitz and Liddell Hart and find that he both understands them and sees their weak points or, I should say, their limits. The same is true when he writes about recent authors that are more in the management field. I have read those too, met a few, and closely worked some years with one of them. So what do I miss?
Apparently, he never experienced what a good strategy does to an organization. How it brings minds into focus, increases understanding of the external and internal conditions of an organization, how it electrifies managers and operational people and brings the performance of that organization on a whole new level. And he certainly didn’t help to formulate such a strategy.
Like most authors, he doesn’t distinguish clearly between strategy and tactics, considering strategy more as a kind of large-scale and long-term tactics. Let me suggest a different approach:
  • Standard operating procedures are the antidote to plodding on without learning from experience and without analysis of costs and benefits.
  • Tactics are the antidote to mindless execution of standard operating procedures.
  • Strategy is the antidote to mindless tactics. Strategy prunes and corrects tactics and keeps it focused on the essentials of the situation and the essential goals. Which means, of course, reassessing the situation and reassessing the goals whenever desirable or necessary.
Strategy is not about plans, though plans are useful and necessary, as long as they are not taken too seriously.
In my experience, an organization only needs to make once or twice a comprehensive plan. Why? because that transforms the minds of people. They learn to consider things in a strategic way. Once they have that, strategy becomes a mind-set instead of a plan.

Take one of the few successful strategies of the United States after the Second World War: making the Soviet Union lose in Afghanistan and withdraw. It was the result of ‘a few good man.’ Charlie Wilson, its hero, was a far cry from a strategist, but he kept focused on essentials, like shooting down the Russian helicopters. The master mind in the war was, probably more than anybody else, Mike Vickers. Immense logistical, financial and political operations, but welded together by a strategic analysis that fortified a strategic instinct. As usual, the main enemy was not the other side, but incompetence, fear and bureaucracy at one's own side.

I have witnessed how a simple strategy resolved so-called unsolvable crime problems in three months till a few years. Strategy is not a plan. It’s a practical mind-set that brings together situational knowledge, business competence and practical and really worthwhile goals. Whatever the paperwork involved, a strategy description shouldn’t take more than a few pages. It both ignites and clarifies the mind.
As a historian, I liked Freedman’s book from the first pages. As a strategist, I became interested on page 571. Still 60 useful pages.

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