Thursday, 21 March 2013

Change of plan. Or Strategy

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.


  1. If there is a distinction, I would suggest that "Strategy" is a collection of plans with a shared objective. Thus in circumstances where the Government take and spend so much of our GDP we probably do need a "National Strategy" which defines the supposed balance of importance between, say - Energy Security - Support for Education - Foreign Policy Objectives - Direct Defence Capacity et al - and then ensures the relevant plans fit together and add value to one another where possible. Unfortunately all the Politicians really have a sense of is their Party Plan (usually glorified as Strategy; sometimes even confused with National Strategy) to beat the other lot and win the next nobody in politics ever really asks "what sort of a country do we want?" because for them the only possible answer is "one that votes for us"

    The terrible thing is that most of them are smart people who mean well and want to do good, but a kind of collective tribal madness rapidly overtakes them, within which party advantage and the national interest become indistinguishable; perhaps an inevitable consequence of their having trained to become politicians from University (or even earlier in some cases).

    No clue as to what to do about any of it though...

    aka GNB

  2. "The terrible thing is that most of them are smart people who mean well and want to do good..." - Gobsmacked! The handful I've had direct dealings with have all been complete ars*h*les, regardless of party leanings, age or gender. I'm sure they regarded such concepts as "honesty, loyalty," etc in much the same way as I regard leprosy - horrible to be afflicted by but thankfully not contagious.

    "...who I would politely describe as a nonsensical bell end." - Not me, in case anyone's wondering. Most of those books are out of my price range (I paid £3.50 for my Thucydides, back when £3.50 was a good night out), and I have gone Kindle anyway. Am slowly working my way through the podcasts, which come to think of it, would be a good way to condense those books into easily digestible chunks like Chris suggests; one of his sensible suggestions.

    I was shocked when the late TD suggested that we have a "maritime strategy." Perhaps he meant we have a plan to have a maritime strategy?

  3. @ WiseApe - I have seen the conduct you refer to, and believe it is a symptom of the Tribal Madness; I have known a number (including some real big hitters) as much younger people before it sets in.

    In my terms, "Maritime Strategy" amounts to enjoying the freedom of the sea for trade and transport and making such plans as might be necessary to secure it from time to time...which might be no more than assuming somebody else will do it...and where more, should serve some bigger objective like "Staying in the G20 and on the UN Security Council because it makes it easier for us to stay comparatively rich and get our own way when we need to"

    Similarly, Churchill's ultimately successful war-winning strategy was "Keeping Britain and the Empire in the ring until the Cousins saw sense and joined the party", his overarching plan was to maintain a sufficient Command of the Ocean to shift people and stuff about as required, and all other plans were subsidiary to that...

    If @IXION is out there, I know you think I am talking worthless idiotic rubbish, so there is no need to tell me again.

    aka GNB

  4. Afternoon gents.

    I assure you TD is not dead, I spoke to his Twitter thing earlier, just looking for a new server host. Popularity would have its drawbacks it seems.

    Wise, you can afford a few extra books. You know you want to. And what do you mean "one of his sensible suggestions"? Cheeky barsteward.

    GNB, MP wise I've only had the pleasure of meeting Bob Russell (LibDem - Colchester) and I found him to be a self centred, self important knob of the first degree. Which is why he got on so well with my boss at the time.

    Strategy wise, I reaffirm what I said in the post. To me strategy is essentially just interchangeable with the word plan. And the more I think about it, the more I hope we will one day go back to a world where that is the case. I think Strategy in itself is not so much the problem. It's the word "strategic" that has caused more problems and infected the word strategy by approximation.

    As for a maritime strategy, looking at the budget and the prospect of two more years of defence cuts, I wouldn't get too excited about having any strategy. The new Chief of the Defence Staff must be wishing he'd retired years ago.

    I'm not sure what's worse though; the coalitions pathetic attempts to cut the budget without actually having the bollocks to do it properly and just get it over done with in one painful surgery, or the fact that Labours plans (which essentially just seems to be 'spend more public money') look increasingly more insane the more up to date figures we get.

  5. I think it depends on what form your strategy takes. As noted above, some of the best statements of 'strategy' are short and sharp declarations of intent(for the Allies in the Second World War - "Europe First"). That might look a lot like a 'plan'.

    But I think, pretty emphatically, that a good strategy is not exactly the same as a plan, rather it's the framework for how you approach a problem. It states what you're trying to achieve, and the approach you're going to take, but it also states your priorities, risks and threshold for pain. The plan falls out of it and describes what you're actually going to *do*, when and in what order etc. So your plan can change quite a lot, but your parameters and approach (the strategy) should be more enduring.

    The Securocrat

  6. "self centred, self important knob of the first degree" - In fact, you've met all of them! To be fair though, they have to lie, otherwise we'd never vote for them. Cuts all in one go - that's not going to get you re-elected.

    More books? I'd have to get rid of some of my comics!

    My two pence worth on the strategy/plan debate is this: strategy is your ultimate aim, the "ends" if you will; plan is the "means," i.e. how are you going to achieve it. I think that's pretty much what GNB is saying above.

  7. See to me if you have an ultimate aim then it's just that, an aim. Or an end. Or an objective. Then the strategy is how you intend to reach that aim.

    Cuts all in one go - better to just hammer it all out in one painful sitting and then gloat as the deficit comes crashing down and the economy recovers, than keep cutting little bits here and there year after year, producing years of negative headlines and leaving uncertainty that prevents businesses from making clearer estimates.

    You'd be amazed what people will forget about in time if rosey things follow bad things.

  8. @Wise Ape - it is - our national Aim is to remain as far as possible rich, free, and able to do things our own sweet way - the Means are whatever it takes to achieve that (in my view summarised as remaining on the UNSC and in the G20) - each individual step will need a Plan - the whole lot together are a National Strategy - unsurprisingly, not much altered since Churchill's golden days (the first one, obviously).

    @Chris - I agree, but the Tory Party election plan was to promise to ring-fence spending on the NHS, Education, and the big chunks of the Benefits Budget that go to the elderly (Well over half the total, and all the biggest spenders); and because they had "Dementia Politica" they believed their plan for beating Labour and winning the election was a National Strategy to secure the future of the Country; what they should have done was announce immediately that because Labour had concealed the true horror of the situation, they needed to abandon all their vote-winning promises without further ado and start fixing stuff; but like all politicians they now think that them winning matters more than anything else.

    And the real horror is they really, honestly believe it - which is quite frankly terrifying...

    aka GNB

    1. I remember they gave a cast iron guarantee about a vote on the EU as well. Look how that panned out (though to be fair that's probably all to do with Cleggy, and I suspect an almost life long politico like Cameron will turn that against Clegg at the next election. If not, he should).

      Just on your response to Wise Ape, I would characterise your desire to stay in the UNSC and the G20 as being your National strategy in that example. It's your plan for how to keep Britain rich and free. Or at the very least it would be a sub-component of your strategy.

  9. Disgusted grange over sandsMarch 21, 2013 8:31 pm

    I understood STRATEGY was how you thought you were going to proceed as opposed to TACTICS which is what you actually did!

    Incidentlty I take slap handed out to me about access to Barrow cill is only 30 ft and too narrow for Jumbo. Dredged channel Ok but nothing at end!

    1. Say again old chap, didn't quite get all that?

      Tactics I would characterise as the minute details of the execution of the plan (strategy). So lets say we were tasked to squeeze the maximum amount of bang for our buck out of the defence budget, part of our strategy might be to downsize the regular army (this is hypothetical, not saying that's the best way to go about it) from 82,000 to 70,000. The "tactics" of that I would characterise as being figuring out the details of who the 12,000 are that get the chop.

      Welcome to Defence With A C by the way.

  10. It's lovely in Grange over Sands. When it's not raining. Which isn't often.

    Easy way to decide which 12000 army bods to get rid off - choose the fattest, they burn the most fuel. At least when the Cousins come asking for company in their latest escapade, be it Korea, Iran, Narnia or where ever, at least we'll be able to say "Sorry old boy, just don't have the manpower. Have you tried asking the Germans, they used to be terribly keen about that sort of thing."

    My plan is to win the Euro Lottery several times in a row then buy my own island. My strategy is to not let the bastards grind me down.

    A better question might be: when does a plan become a grand plan? Or even a master plan. I suspect the former might depend upon the level of success while the latter is dependent upon the degree of evilness.

  11. Chris totally agree with you about 'On War'.

    Currently reading war studies at king's and that book almost killed me during the first term...

    Great site by the way!


    1. You have my sympathies Ali. One day I may just take it upon myself to write a shortened version ("On War; The Best Bits?") to save people many hours and days of aggravation.

      Glad you enjoy the site, and welcome.

  12. Chris,

    Not to rob you of a place setting on the think tank gravy train ("Clauswitz: The Best Bits") but you and Ali might find this a useful resource, just follow the link, click the "home" icon after you've read the little spiel, and scroll to the bottom to start reading:

    1. Haha, brilliant. Not quite what I was thinking, but a step in the right direction.

    2. 'S good, innit? I quite like the illustrations myself. Run those by your nephew....

    3. He'd probably eat the book. Idiot child.

  13. Not quite Brodies' Notes, but also try:

    1. Hello Ant. Can we go even shorter than that?