Translating Classic Strategic Theory into Modern Business Practice

Translating classic strategic theory into modern business practice

How do we apply classical strategic ideas into modern practice? Michael Handel, in Masters of War: Classic Strategic Thought, explains the longevity of classic strategic theory.
As modern practitioners of strategy it is our challenge to take these preeminent ideas of classical military wisdom and apply them to our current business and organizational challenges.

Learning to see the situation as a whole

“Imagine what it would be like if scientists, physicians, or even economists were to rely on a text written over 150, let alone 2,000, years ago as the most valuable source of instruction in their profession. Yet this is precisely the case in the study of war, a fact that is especially ironic because no other area of human activity …. has been so transformed by rapid technological advances.”

From the classical perspective there are basically four components to strategy: 1) Policy, 2) Strategy, 3) Operations & Tactics) and 4) Moral factors (culture).

First, some basic definitions:

• Policy – a broad framework of mission, objectives and the intentions of the leader.

• Strategy – One of the best, succinct definitions of strategy comes from the English military theorist BH Liddel Hart. He defined strategy as “… the art of distributing and applying (military) means to fulfil the ends of policy.”

• Operations and Tactics – these are the areas of ‘doing, not just thinking.’ Here we execute our strategy, organizing our capabilities into campaigns and maneuvering our forces (read: resources)

• Moral factors – this is the organizational elements of accomplishing our mission. Clausewitz address areas of training, motivation, quality of personnel, experience and creativity: areas we now call culture.

“For Clausewitz, these ‘moral factors’ consist of the non-material, non-quantifiable metaphysical dimensions that permeate every facet of war.”

Visually, here is how the components to accomplishing your mission look like:

The Paradox of Strategy – ‘Getting the big things right enough’ while being informed but not led by tactics

Before we dive into each component it’s important we understand an important paradox of strategy. On one hand there is a hierarchy of influence. Getting strategy right or, as Colin Gray writes in Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace and Strategy, “Getting the big things right enough”, will be the most important determinant of accomplishing our mission. Get strategy right and you can overcome errors in operations and tactics.

But strategy is also a complex system based on reciprocal relationships. This can be thought of as a horizontal image, as below. As we consider the influence of these different elements, regardless of where they stand in the hierarchy, we need to heed the warning of Professor Handel. Handel explains that we need to avoid the ‘Tacticization of Strategy.’ This is where the operational and tactical tail wag the strategy dog.

We need to continually be informed by our tactics and operations, as we adapt and overcome to the situation on the ground. But as leaders we can’t be led by the tactical situation to determine our long term plans. Handel explains the risk:

‘…outstanding performance on the tactical or operational level causes political and military leaders to emphasize short-run success on the battlefield, while neglecting the development of a coherent long-range strategy. Yet when a strategy is not consciously formulated, it emerges by default. Instead of being the driving force in war, strategy becomes a mere by-product or afterthought.”

Conceptually, our main learning point should be to consider the situation as a whole. Here, the Chinese communist revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung is instructive:

“The view that strategic victory is determined by tactical successes alone is wrong because it overlooks the fact that victory or defeat in war is first and foremost a question of whether the situation as a whole and its various stages are properly taken into account” ~ Mao Tse-tung

History is replete with famous, and infamous, leaders who had operational and tactical mastery but missed strategic breakthroughs. Napoleon brilliantly won most of his battles but failed to achieve strategic victory in Europe. And Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who was for decades the nemesis of Rome, never lost a major battle in Italy; “..yet his tactical prowess,” explains Handel, ‘was not enough to secure final strategic victory.”

Managing this paradoxical view of strategy is paramount for successful leaders. Modern strategists learn to effectively plan a vertical, top-down hierarchy of influence while avoiding the horizontal ‘Tacticization of Strategy,’ to use Michael Hande’s phrase.

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