Something new has cropped up that's worth a quick look before I turn in for the night. I was checking in on the excellent "Thin Pinstriped Line" blog, where Sir Humphrey has posted a link to the Chief of Defence Staff's recommended reading list. I followed the link and noticed that the very first book on the list, the "Book of the Month", was Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt (Profile Books).
This caught my attention because I was lent this book last November by someone I know, a person who I would politely describe as a nonsensical bell end. I was informed that this book would be right up my street as it was all about strategy and told that it "really gives you a whole new horizon to scan about strategic thinking". I suspect that had the author been there and heard him use those terms to describe the book, he would have immediately grabbed the copy and bludgeoned my acquaintance to death with it.
So I took the book home and spent of all about three hours reading it before returning it the next day, though I resisted the temptation to use it as a blunt instrument of death. It was at the same time both the finest book I've read to date on strategy, and also a complete waste of time fit mainly for use as emergency toilet paper.
The reason I say this is because the author - in a round about way - points out in the introduction (which you can actually read as an extract on the CDS's review page) that "strategy" is essentially just another way of saying "plan", and that most of the mumbo jumbo that modern organisations talk about these days as strategy is just a collection of management speak infused with some hopeful sounding rhetoric about success, growth and winning.
I turned to the first chapter then expecting it to be blank. Sadly it wasn't. And having read a little further into the book I realised that the author was simply doing what he had decried others for doing in his introduction; he was turning strategy into some kind of organisational concept, complete with headings and bullet points and overuse of the words "coherent" and "coherence".
Within about three paragraphs at the start he'd made the only point that needed making. This shouldn't have been a book. It should have been an article in a newspaper, the New York Times perhaps. The one and only thing that needed to be said was that the words "plan" and "strategy" are interchangeable. That's it right there.
Think about the following phrases for a second:
- We have a strategy to create growth in the economy.
- We have a strategy to boost sales in the next quarter.
- We have a strategy to reduce our overheads on the service side.
- We have a strategy to defeat the enemy.
Now tell me which of those phrases would change their meaning if I took the word "strategy" out and replaced it with the word "plan"? The answer is none.
I mentioned strategy at the start of a post the other day. I didn't really want to get into the whole debate about "strategy" at the time because so many people have so many different views on what that word means, especially in a defence context. I opted to go with "let's just assume that it means the broad goals of defence as it affects the UK" because that was the most helpful explanation for the topic of that article.
Here I'm not so bothered and we can have an argument about the word strategy if you like. Generally speaking I see the word strategy as just meaning "a plan of action", or "plan" for short. If you disagree, by all means offer up your alternatives in the comments below and I'll try to get round to answering all of them.
But the main thrust of this post is actually not about that particular book, or the word strategy, or indeed bludgeoning people to death with the biggest waste of rainforest since the latest celebrity under 50 decided to pen an autobiography. Instead this post is about another form of waste, specifically that of the time of junior officers in all branches of the military.
Because I have to take the opposite stance to the one Sir Humphrey did in his article, while agreeing on the end goal (the benefit of continued education and learning through a career). You could even say we have different strategies for achieving the same end.
As he pointed out, the militaries of many nations have recommended reading lists for officers and officer candidates, or indeed required reading lists in many cases, especially our cousins across the Atlantic. But far from encouraging British officers to take greater advantage of the multitude of reading materials available, I'd like to suggest that we should be doing the hard work for them and condensing the material down into far more digestible chunks, like the modules on a standard educational course.
I say this because officers and aspiring officer candidates have plenty enough things on their plate to deal with already, without having to devote many an hour to reading entire volumes of various books, many of which could have their critical points summarised in a much tighter form. One of the prime candidates for this treatment would be the perennial favourite on every military reading list the world over; "On War" by Carl Von Clausewitz.
I hate this book with a passion like you wouldn't believe. Given the choice of reading it again from cover to cover, or else sitting between George Osbourne and Ed Balls while one of them tells me that the best way to reduce the national deficit is to slightly reduce spending while also hacking away at Government income, while the other tells me that the best way to reduce the deficit is to increase income a little but also keep spending very high, then I'll take the inane argument between the dipsh*t politicians every time.
On War is to reading, what dipping your toes into boiling acid is to relaxation. It's a tortuous book, full of philosophical guff and unnecessarily eloquent and verbose material. The primary reason that it gets included on so many reading lists centres around four concepts outlined in the book; the friction of war, the fog of war, war as a continuation of politics by other means, and total war.
If those are the four main things that we want our military leaders to take away from the book, then why not simply bypass the heavy reading and produce either a) four independent modules that outline each principle, with examples, or b) produce a single module titled "On War" which gives a brief biography of who Clausewitz was and his experience, before detailing the four core principles that he outlined in his book, tying them together in some regard.
Provide them on some kind of internal learning network, or in a mini-book form, more like a brief history paper than a thick book. The end result is that the officer acquires the relevant details and concepts that we wanted him/her to learn, while at the same time saving him/her from a suicide inducing experience that would be enough to put even the most ardent book worm off further study for life.
A similar principle could be applied to the absolute and unquestionable favourite book in my military library, Erwin Rommels "Infantry Attacks". If you don't have a copy, get one. It's a fantastic read and available now on Amazon for less than a tenner. Quite a cheerful book considering it deals with one of the most horrific wars mankind has ever fought, exciting, informative, very detailed and gives you a perfect insight into why Rommel went on to make an almost perfect armoured division commander, but struggled to achieve the same success at higher command levels.
As a book of interest it's superb and I can't recommend it highly enough. However, as a read for officers looking to develop their professional knowledge, I'm not sure how much could be learnt from the initial chapter of the book, as Rommel spent the early part of World War I chasing a field kitchen across parts of North Eastern France, though they might gain a better understanding of why it was that German infantry became so skilled, and indeed so enamoured, with digging deep trenches every time they stopped moving for any length of time.
The book does progress rapidly into more military detail and Rommel gives a superb account of the campaigns and actions he was involved in, right down to the tactical level. Would I want professionals to have to read the whole thing though? There a lots of tid bits of information that add character and flavour to the text, but would be of less interest to a professional reader. The book could probably be halved in length by an editor and still retain everything of value to an army officer, while saving them many pages worth of reading that could be devoted to other matters.
So while I agree with Sir Humphrey that knowledge is power and that continuous education can reap great rewards (and not just in the military), I disagree on the approach. Instead I would like to see military colleges around the world go to greater lengths to actively ease the burden both on their students and on older officers seeking to develop their knowledge further. Instead of simply producing a list of materials and saying "read these", I'd like to see educational branches do the editing and summary work themselves, to provide officers with a more easily accessible and useful range of learning materials.
Same goal. Different strategy.
P.S. Jesus, it's 3am. So much for a quick look.