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Ruminating on Strategic Thinking

“Let the Wookiee win….”

Warning! Thinking out loud in progress…..

Strategy is often described as the alignment of “Ends-Ways-Means” and “planning” to achieve important goals and several other useful definitions related to matters of war, statecraft and business.  That great strategists have come in many forms, not just between fields but demonstrating tremendous variance within them – ex.  George  Marshall vs. Alexander the Great vs. Carl von Clausewitz – indicates that strategic thinking is a complex activity in terms of cognition.

What are some of the mental actions that compose “strategic thinking” or “making strategy”? A few ideas:

  • Recognition of important variables
  • Assessment of the nature of each variable
  • Assessment of the relative importance of each variable
  • Assessment of the relationships among the variables
  • Assessment of the relationship between the variables and their strategic environment
  • Assessment of current “trajectory” or trend lines of variables
  • Assessment of costs to effect a change in the position or nature of each variable
  • Assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the variables as a functioning system
  • Recognition of systemic “choke points”, “tipping points” and feedback loops.

  • Probabilistic estimation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Introspection 
  • Extrapolation
  • Simplification
  • Metacognition
  • Horizontal Thinking
  • Insight
  • Imagination (esp. at “grand strategic” level)

  • Logistical estimation of costs
  • Normative evaluation of potential benefits
  • Understanding of temporal constraints
  • Recognition of opportunity costs
  • Recognition of boundary conditions
  • Recognition of physical constraints of strategic environment (terrain, weather, distance etc.)
  • Recognition of patterns in the history of the strategic environment

  • Net assessment of the maximum capabilities of a political community (first ours, then theirs)
  • Understanding of organizational structure of a political community
  • Recognition of stakeholders in the political community 
  • Understanding of decision making process of the political community
  • Understanding the power relationships of the decision making process of the political community
  • Understanding the distribution of resources within the political community
  • Recognition of the touchstone points of the cultural identity of the political community (positive and negative) and worldview
  • Assessment of morale of the political community and the community’s moral code
  • Assessment of psychology of individual adversary decision makers
  • Identification of points of comparative advantage
  • Recognition of how different bilateral outcomes/shifts will affect third parties
  • Assessment of relationship between the adversaries and between them and third parties

This list is not comprehensive. In fact, I have a question for the readership, particularly those with military service and/or a good grasp of military history:

Where do the interpersonal skills or “emotional intelligence” abilities that comprise the activity we term “leadership” fit into strategic thinking? Or is it a separate but complementary suite of talents? We often assume that great strategists are the great leaders, but we tend to forget all of the generals who were popular yet mediocre in the field and gloss over the human faults of those who won great glory.

I have some ideas but I would like to hear yours. Or any additional suggestions or comments you would care to make.

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10 Responses to “Ruminating on Strategic Thinking”

  1. MikeF Says:

    Emotional Intelligence is key to understanding yourself, others, and human nature!!!  Otherwise, you can get enamored in the theory and blind to how it can’t fit into practice.  I think EI bridges the gap from science to art.  Additionally, I’m having a private discussion with two non-military brilliant folks who want to teach strategy to the military in a different way.  Here’s what I suggested.  1.  Teach problem solving without using the words wicked problems or design.  Teach the students how groups like Apple and Google innovate and plan, but don’t use the terms “wicked” or “design,” because your audience will be bringing a lot of baggage to the table with those words.  Those are my observations knowing my peers.  For instance, one fascinating question given the Steve Jobs bio would be, “Does something on the magnitude of changing the world like the Ipod/Iphone/Ipad or even back to the Ford Model T require a Micromanager to design, develop, and promote?”  This answer will help the students tackle questions on Army structure during the post- Iraq/A’stan drawdown as well as better understand nation-building.  2.  I think that both you and y bring such a unique perspective to how you see the world both in your ability to articulate problems and forecast solutions that you could chose to develop a class on “The x and y Guide to Creativity in Strategy” and really focus on helping the students break through their conceptual blocks from their military indoctrination and training.  Reteach them how to think

  2. seydlitz89 Says:

    zen-

    Interesting list.  

    I would comment on “political community” since I think this key to the whole approach.  If we follow Clausewitz/Weber we are NOT talking about a “community” as a in entity that “thinks” or “acts” in a certain way, but rather as a whole separate sphere of social action orientations.  That is we’re talking about individuals who act in accord with different “logics”: one being for the individual acting with other individuals and another being the individual acting as part of a political community.  The political community has a very profound influence in general since it helps define who the individual is and his/her relationship to/within the group.  Political communities could be studied in terms of the comparative emphasis on moral or material cohesion present in each.

    Related to this would be the community’s attitude towards organized violence as a means.  How is it seen by each side?  This would be linked to but still distinct from the “fighting spirit” of the group in question.

    Finally, you mention “third parties”, but I would expand this to include the whole balance of power among all the political communities involved/interested/affected by the conflict.  What are their interests in a change of the balance of power, or would they prefer the status quo maintained?  The questions brought up here are almost limitless.

    There’s something else for Wylie I’d add, but would rather think about it a bit more . . .

     

  3. Fred Leland Says:

    I wrote this a few years back coming at it from the law enforcement perspective Conflict, Violence and the Art of Operations…Connecting the End (Strategy) with the Means (Tactics) I believe its related to the question you ask;  “Where do the interpersonal skills or “emotional intelligence” abilities that comprise the activity we term “leadership” fit into strategic thinking?” I am thinking both EI and Leadership are most definitively conencted to strategy. Here the link tot he above mentioned post. http://lesc.net/blog/conflict-violence-and-art-operations-hellipconnecting-end-strategy-means-tactics 

     
     

  4. Larry Dunbar Says:

    “Where do the interpersonal skills or “emotional intelligence” abilities that comprise the activity we term “leadership” fit into strategic thinking? ”

    As your second commenter pretty much says, structurally wise EI fits into the gap between the leader (gamer or non-gamer) and second “dancer”, or what is called the second player. Probably more EI comes from the second player than the leader, but who know? 

    It also sounds like you left truncated and interpolation off your list. Truncated can be used to get you down to the the last 2 minutes of game, so to speak, and interpolation is kind of the algorithm between form and content. 

  5. slapout9 Says:

    I would add time. In one sense Strategy is how to control time.

  6. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Mark -
    .
    Not military, but have some thoughts on how that plays with emotional intelligence, or maybe doesn’t.
    .
    I learned most of what I know about strategy from a man who had been in the military but never in war. He liked military history because he said it laid the bones of strategy bare. Our context for discussing strategy was within a civilian organization. Many of his ideas were quite helpful, particularly in difficult areas like maintaining one’s integrity while gaining power within the organization.
    .
    As I moved into management positions, I found myself disagreeing with him more frequently. The disagreements, as I think back, were in the area of EI. And my solutions turned out well, despite his misgivings. I think that perhaps what he was stripping out in looking at military strategy was the EI component.
    .
    You’ve already listed components of strategy much further down than I have consciously thought about, although the list seems pretty much right. I suspect we could continue to add to it. If we did the same with the emotional component, I’ll bet the list would be as long.
    .
    But I wonder if I would then be like the centipede who couldn’t figure out which leg came next.

  7. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I recently finished Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A Life. Though there’s plenty to quibble about with Steinberg’s interpretation, his focus on how Bismarck did what he did allows him to capture many of the elements of Bismarck’s strategy right. A few of these are, in no particular order:

    lessons learned or things he’d do differently than his predecessors. Bismarck’s wanted to correct the mistakes he and conventional wisdom thought that Prussia and its leaders had made over the course of Bismarck’s lifetime i.e. the need for a unified Germany to repel French agression, repeatedly kow-towing to Austria, building a unified Germany on liberalism, etc. FDR sought to create a post-WWII order that would fix the problems with Wilson’s post-WWI order e.g. muscular collective defense, no U.S. isolationism, unconditional surrender, better pre-war mobilization, etc. Hitler sought the same thing: no “stab in the back”, enough resources to resist Anglo-American blockade, draconian military discipline so the German soldier wouldn’t run away, etc. Baby Bush went all the way to Baghdad where Daddy Bush pulled up short. 
    lessons learned or things he’d do the same as his predecessors. Bismarck followed Frederick II’s example of being an anti-anti-Machiavel and using a wide range of initiatives in pursuit of his goals than his ideological framework thought was morally acceptable
    capturing and maintaining his place in the power structure. Bismarck’s initiatives were always guided with one idea on his own political power, which was completely dependent on the whims and character of one rapidly aging monarch. So Bismarck sought to build up William I’s power by destroying competing centers of power within Germany with the outcomes of both his domestic and foreign policies. Then he sought to convince William that he was indispensible, apparently mostly through throwing temper tantrums, complaining about his health, bursting into tears, and threatening to resign and go back to his estate. William seems to have been the only person in Prussia who believed Bismarck would actually be satisfied with retirement.
    chumps and opportunities: sometimes chumps and opportunities are the same. Sometimes they’re different. Bismarck’s career was made possible by chumps and the opportunities they created as they rampaged across history. The Gerlachs raised him to prominence in Prussian politics but he dumped them when they became too reactionary even for Bismarck. Roon singlehandedly raised Bismarck to power by repeatedly urging William II to appoint him. The king of the chumps, however, was Luigi Nabulione Buonaparte whose disruption of global and European order was so extravagant that it made the careers of not only Bismarck but Alexander II, Cavour, Lincoln, Grant, the Meiji Emperor and his genro, Juarez, and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand among many others.
    enduring tribal bias. Though Bismarck would resort to strategic initiatives like universal suffrage that shook Austria and the German monarchlets but his own Junker class found abhorrent, he remained dedicated to preserving traditions like the authority of the Prussian crown and the privileges of the Prussian nobility. His attachment to vague notions like maintaining the European balance of power between “Westphalian nation-states” would seem quaint to later revisionists like Lenin or Hitler.
    the power of passion. Though it was not as felt in foreign policy as in domestic policy, the power of Bismarck’s hatreds, stoked by Frau Bismarck, led him to undertake initiatives that were almost entirely motivated by personal malice. Bismarck was simultaneously at war with the Catholic Center Party and its leader Ludwig Windthorst, the primarily Jewish leadership of the liberals, Crown Prince Frederick, Moltke, Crown Princess Victoria, and Bismarck’s most hated nemesis: Queen/Empress Augusta. Bismarck would often carry out some crazy elaborate scheme rather than make nice with his enemies, especially the Queen/Empress. 
    the footprints of character: it’s all personal. The entire apparatus that Bismarck erected between 1862-1890 was implicitly and explicitly based on the need to accomodate the personalities involved at the pinnacle of Prussian, German, and European political life. The institutional structure was designed to enhance Bismarck’s power while restricting that of his opponents. It made the chancellor of Germany/minister-president of Prussia responsible to one man and one man alone: the German Emperor/king of Prussia. As long as the chancellor was dominant and the king pliable, the system worked. When the king was unpliable but domineering and the chancellor weak and ignorable, the system was dysfunctional both institutionally and culturally.
    learn from parallel efforts: Cavour, much like Hitler did for Stalin, provided a contemporary peer whose parallel experimentations revealed otherwise hidden techniques and opportunities to Bismarck within his efforts.
    dominance of politics over the policy: Bismarck wanted to fight a limited war with France that would leave France led by a regency for the young Prince Imperial. Fate interceded when the true political head of the Prussian war effort, William II, decided he wanted to march down the Champs Elysees like he did in 1814 and 1815. This opinion was almost universally endorsed by the king’s personal circle and his military staff led by Moltke. So Bismarck’s preferred end was denied, the Prince Imperial ended up Zulu meat, and Europe began its march to the Marne.
    recognition of changing circumstances, its opportunities and perils, due to deliberate strategic effect, unrelated outcomes, accidental outcomes, mistakes, and new possibilities: Many wars start out with one set of notions only to have them change, expand, and contract as things unfold. Bismarck had a genius for looking for the main chance where no one else would see it and jumping for it.
    pieces on the board: Bismarck had plenty of pieces on the board 1862-1871 and he used them. However, his own successes, example, and the slickness of his techniques removed many of those pieces from the board. There were fewer states in Europe to maneuver around in 1871 than in 1862, everyone else wanted to play a Bismarckian game, and many people refused to deal with Bismarck because they disapproved of his mendacity and penchant for trickery. Bismarck recognized the changed correlation of forces and played for equilibrium after 1871.
    sheer bloody-minded pursuit of an ideal in spite of an unsupportive reality: Steinberg argues, persuasively, that the strategic masterpiece of Bismarck’s career, the event that made Bismarck Bismarck, was the war against the Danes in 1863-1864. Prussia was weak, Bismarck’s hold on power was weak, the ends he pursued seemed out of reach, the forces conspiring to counter him were active and overwhelming. Yet he maintained an unswerving hold on his ideal of German unification with Prussia and without Austria. This maintenance of the objective coupled with Bismarck’s genius and tactical flexibility allowed him to see and exploit opportunity where no one else could see it because Bismarck’s path forward was lit by the lodestar of his strongly held objectives.

  8. zen Says:

    A lot of interesting material here in the comments:
    .
    Mike,
    .
     ““Does something on the magnitude of changing the world like the Ipod/Iphone/Ipad or even back to the Ford Model T require a Micromanager to design, develop, and promote?”  This answer will help the students tackle questions on Army structure during the post- Iraq/A’stan drawdown as well as better understand nation-building. “
    .
    I note that Jobs and Ford, while annoying micromanaging bastards as ppl, had a kind of artist’s monomaniacal fealty to bringing a vision to fruition and that was what they aimed at rather than aiming at changing the world Probably if they aimed to change the world rather than create their exact vision, they would have failed.
    .
    The second thing I would like to comment on is your remark about breaking free of indoctrination. What I observed in the students at the Army War College last June were guys trying to make that critical mental jump from a tactical response orientation (which they were good at) to a much broader, pro-active strategic orientation. Some had it and some struggled.
    .
     Hi seydlitz – you wrote:

     
    I would comment on “political community” since I think this key to the whole approach.  If we follow Clausewitz/Weber we are NOT talking about a “community” as a in entity that “thinks” or “acts” in a certain way, but rather as a whole separate sphere of social action orientations.  That is we’re talking about individuals who act in accord with different “logics”: one being for the individual acting with other individuals and another being the individual acting as part of a political community.  The political community has a very profound influence in general since it helps define who the individual is and his/her relationship to/within the group.  Political communities could be studied in terms of the comparative emphasis on moral or material cohesion present in each.
    .
    I think you are right here and that this is very important. Moreover, I will hazard a hypothesis that the radical compartmentalization and specialization in academia in the 20th century has damaged the ability of educated people to have the kind of grasp of the holistic nature of the political that was once a common frame of reference ( at least in a ruling class). One that we can readily see, for example, in the classical Greeks or the Founding Fathers but begins to diminish after 1920 and has now essentially vanished.
    .
     Hi Fred,
    .
    Your piece was interesting on several levels. First, I do not think (though I am no expert here) that there has been enough thought on the “operational” level of police work, secondly, your law enforcement perspective of de-escalation of potential conflict is a critical one for strategic thinking. No nation prospers from long wars and the looking for signaling that are the precursors to conflict is not really stressed outside of deterrence theory associated with nuclear war.
    .
    Hi Slap,
    .
    And the time-distance-cost relationship!
    .
    Hi Cheryl – you wrote:
    .
     

  9. zen Says:

    Wow – lost half of my comment – a part II will follow 

  10. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Does Culture Trump Strategy? Says:

    [...] but while not the same kind of “strategy”, the underlying cognitive action, the “strategic thinking”,  is similar. Perhaps the [...]

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