Impressions on ‘Strategy : A History’ by Lawrence Freedman

On the Brink
Sep 9, 2017 · 6 min read

Getting through the first few chapters of Lawrence Freedman’s seminal work on strategy leaves one with the rapid realization of how much of a ‘loose baggy moster’ the professor of War Studies at King’s College London has created, before appreciating the full scope of the work. And by full scope — I’m not kidding.

The book is not a “how to guide” or a collection of the latest maxims on strategy that eventually turn out to be regurgitated self-help dictums, but is a serious analytic dive in both breath and depth on the history of strategy, its beginnings, the various ways in which it has been defined and applied — both successfully and unsuccessfully, or, in some cases, neither.

Freedman takes a “turning of the screw” approach . Progressively increasing the complexity of analysis as one advances through the book. He whizzes through an exhaustive yet brief journey of strategy from chimpanzees, Satan, and political revolutionaries, to the most influential war, social, and business strategists throughout history.

He bounces from diverse topics such as neuroscience to game theory; political persuasion to class warfare; nuclear armagedon strategies to those of total non-violence, just to name a few. One may even think of the book as a brief summation of the works of influential strategic thinkers, coupled with a quick synopsis of their impact on strategy, with the expert judgment from Freedman as to whether that particular strategy was good, effective, or bad.

It turns out that these theoreticians have influenced each other even though their works may have been geared towards a particular domain. A prime example is the prevalence of military terminology and thinking in approaching business or political strategy.

In the words of Freedman, the book is of value because it provides sort of a “script” on how to view strategy, because strategies are not rigid plans to be formulaically followed. To wit, strategy is about the shrewd calculation of desired outcomes versus available means; the proper application of those means coupled with a continuous calibration of the desired results — with account to what will occur once the next stage is reached. Freedman posits that strategy “is about getting more out of the balance of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.”

He makes clear the distinction between plans and strategy, and murkiness the two can have. The key differentiator being that strategy accounts for outside forces actively opposing one’s actions towards desired outcomes, compared to the sequenced execution of pre-ordained events. Freedman rails against long term strategies because chance events and uncertainty have a way of introducing unpredictable variables that alter the operating environment — thus making long term and complex strategies useless.

“Strategic plans were often management fantasies” he argues, “far exceeding organizational capabilities, with goals defined as if the future could be predicted. The effort was bound to fail because of the inevitable gaps between planning and implementation, means and ends, management and organization, order and disorder.”

The entire effort of understanding the reality of strategy can be surmised in one paragraph despite the heavy and deeply stimulating read. Strategy is in itself a murky world. Where not everything is clear, and chance events that are unpredictable rule supreme. Freedman proposes the lean approach to strategy, where one isn’t rigidly held on one particular approach but is able to adapt to developing situations and redefine their ends and applications of means. This requires an acute awareness of events, trends and forces as they develop, unless one will be surprised and caught off-guard by inattention.

He also warns against those who may take a duplicitous route towards strategy; where fooling others may work the first few times, but suffers the fate of diminishing returns. The conniving ancient Greek figure, Odysseus, is used to prove his point. “Those who knew Odysseus’s reputation rarely trusted him even when he was being straight.” He connects this to the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who became a business craze in the 1980’s and still is today; and whose philosophy was deeply rooted on duplicity, which naturally soothes our vanity. “There is an undoubted satisfaction by winning through wit rather than brute force” observes Freedman.

Tzu advocates doing the opposite of what your opponents expect — bamboozling your opponent to believe the opposite of a particular situation. “The problems come when opponents turn out to be not only better resourced but also as alert, brave, and clever.” The situation can also become quite confusing and disorienting when everyone is trying to deceive each other and there’s no coherent conceptualization of reality.

However, guile, or “mētis” in Greek can be useful in certain circumstances. “Mētis was of most value when matters were fluid, fast moving, unfamiliar, and uncertain” writes Freedman. Adding that it allows for an “ability to adapt constantly to changing events, and sufficient pliability to accommodate the unexpected.”

Moreover, strategy is most employed (out of necessity) by the underdog. This is the person or group that’s outmatched from the beginning and must shrewdly apply limited resources and wits to achieve a particular outcome. We see examples of the underdogs through political revolutionaries such as Karl Marx or Mikhail Bakunin to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Ghandi. They all incorporated a form of riling up the masses by creating a compelling narrative demanding change, which is in itself a strategic move, and then implementing a strategy to gain a sort of victory whether it be the overthrow of the establishment or the granting of civil rights. Whether they were successful is up to question.

Ghandi did succeed but it wasn’t just only because of the pressure his movement applied on the British government; it was also British long term miscalculations that contributed to the result. MLK would end up assassinated. There are still civil rights issues swirling among minorities, even with modest improvements compared to a few decades back. But looking to today it’s impossible to say the civil rights mission has been accomplished.

This inability to completely claim victory in the end is the case when it comes to strategy. Strategy is about advancing to “the next stage rather than some ultimate destination.” Freedman urges that instead of thinking of “strategy as a three-act play, it is better to think of it as a soap opera with a continuing cast of characters and plot lines that unfold over a series of episodes.” An obvious example here is the failure of the Iraq war despite the apparently short lived victory of the toppling Saddam Hussein’s military. The next stage included mitigating a worsening security situation — and more strategically — knowing that the US just toppled Iran’s main regional check on power.

The story of strategy from its theoreticians and practitioners is filled with failure and pessimism. We can’t really come up with a complete picture of reality in establishing a strategy to apply to a specific situation. “No human mind could grasp the totality of factors that were at play” says Freedman. A gap still exists between ultimate reality and perceived reality — which inevitably clashes with our interpretation of reality when approaching a particular challenge. Our hubris in our perception of reality further exacerbates this gap. This disconnect clashes and disrupts our goals and highlights the failure of not developing mechanisms to accurately describe reality in a manner that all the variables, twists and turns and possibilities are accounted for — an unfortunately nearly impossible task because humans, at the end, are not natural strategists.

Strategy: A History. By Lawrence Freedman. Oxford University Press USA; 751 pages; $34.95. Buy from Amazon.com

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