The Abuse of Strategy

Official photographic portrait of US President...

Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I admire President Obama for declaring that he didn’t have a strategy. Although not a natural supporter of Obama’s policies, I believe that he understands and respects strategy. This is important because strategy really matters, and often makes a difference in a fundamental way. If leaders get the strategy wrong, it triggers weakness and often a cancerous state of decay.

From my own vantage, as an expert in delivering strategy, I have seen enormous abuse of strategy. Also with a keen interest in twentieth century history, I have seen political leaders and their military make grave errors of strategy. Strategic errors in wars are often catastrophic.

Too many leaders regard strategy as about planning alone. They ignore execution and delivery. Delivery of an effective strategy often leads to winning or losing, whether it’s military, political or in business.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

When Bush and Blair made the military case to invade Iraq, they did not have an effective strategy. The generals were focused on winning militarily but it seems that nobody focused on the exit strategy and the full consequences. In contrast, President Obama has an excellent command of English and he understands that strategy has many dimensions.

My second example is the absence of an effective of an effective energy strategy in Europe. The European Commission (EC) publishes papers with the “strategy” word but for me this is abuse. The bureaucrats at the European Commission are frequently biased, often consumed with a passion to address green issues and regulatory matters; But the EC  has failed to identify the consequences of no effective energy strategy. Of course, the real blame rests with the political leaders – they are often too focused on short-term political gain.

I shall return with further thoughts on strategy…


One response

  1. I share Dr Alf’s concerns about strategy and about President Obama and like Dr Alf have developed strategies for businesses and even the public sector.

    The problem is always about execution,the money to effect execution and the relevance of the strategy within risk landscapes which are full of new threat actors and where people do not behave in predictable ways as they once did.

    Most strategies are not future-proofed with inbuilt “windows of invulnerability” with which to buy time.

    Most are predicated on the anticipated behaviors of those most affected by the application of strategy at grass roots level being of the same mindset as the people who devised it in the first place.

    Most are executed too slowly, which is why they fall foul of John Boyd’s OODA LOOP which says that the person or country or entity that goes through the loop the fastest is the one who prevails because the opponent is reacting to events which have already happened.

    Sun Tzu and Clauswitz, along with Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Doolittle, Montgomery, Napoleon in his heyday, Patton, Henry the 8th, Peter the Great, Machiavelli, Vespasian, Hadrian, William the Conqueror and Gengis Khan all understood this extremely well but our present crop of political leaders and those above them are very slow to grasp what needs to be done.

    We know from McKinsey’s that any given business today competes with companies, 50% of whom did not even exist more than 2 years ago and we know that unlike the 1950’s and 1960’s when the world was a more predictable place, at least 50% of everything that happens is a random, unquantifiable “Black Swan” event.

    As the world becomes more populated, as more of us live in cities and as people travel more and communicate more the pace of these processes is going to increase.

    Therefore strategies have to embody certain characteristics if they are to stand any chance of being implemented or implemented successfully:

    These are(iter alia):

    –They must be relevant to the circumstances which prevail at the time of implementation
    –They must be capable of being implemented quickly and be properly resourced
    –They must be relevant to the lives of those most affected with contingency arrangements to assist losers under the new order of things
    –They must be robust, agile and flexible
    –The people that devise them must also be robust, adaptable and flexible, capable of metamorphosis and able to think clearly and act decisively seeing the world and people for what they are not looking through rose tinted spectacles.
    –Their thrust must be capable of rapid metamorphosis without pause so that as things happen they can remain ahead of and in tune with the evolving strategic landscape

    The idea that any President, Prime Minister, Business Leader etc., can sit down in a room, devise a strategy, put it in a draw, or computer file and then watch it seamlessly roll-out is fanciful, yet this is what they do time after time after time.

    In the UK, laws are prepared and grand strategies announced without the money to execute them and without the slightest comprehension of how ordinary people think and live. Then when it fails, we are told lamely that “we underestimated the scale of the problem”, that we are now “listening” and that a “Royal Commission “” headed up by a Judge is going to look at it again”.

    With President Obama, the sorry excuse of a man, who is supposed to be “leader of the Free World”, we have a man out of his depth, slow to act, patrician, aloof from the concerns of ordinary people and incapable of devising anything that remotely meets any of these tests, let alone the more detailed ones that must be encapsulated in a winning strategy; these might include decision-treeing and war-gaming as many of the likely impediments, choke-points and areas of greatest risk that the Strategy has to overcome before it can roll-out properly.

    The EU is populated at the top by Eurocrats who imagine that the world will bend to their conception of reality and they are right all the time. This overrides all commonsense, all reason and all scientific or evidence based advice. They see no need for strategy at all but to create the illusion that there is one they instruct their apparachiks to put the word on the cover of any document so that to the stupid and the uninitiated the final document, rather like a cardboard cutout of a policeman in a store at night,appears to be the real thing.

    As to Dr Alf’s point about failed military strategies in more recent times, the problem there is often the politicians not providing the right equipment and meddling behind the scenes to create delay and confusion and then emasculate the military by not allowing them the scope to do their jobs properly even at the cost of people’s lives.

    Sun Tzu in the masterpiece “The Art of War”, originally written on tiny bamboo strips 2,500 years ago,described this as “deranging the military”. This happens too often and both President Obama and our own David Cameron are incapable of performing at the required level which is why the Chinese and people like Vladimir Putin take the pronouncements of both these men with a pinch of salt.

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