January 25, 2017

Review of *Strategy Safari*

I finished reading Henry Mintzberg et al.'s Strategy Safari. I was not expecting much but the book was very, very good. The primary takeaway I got from it was that people in organizational theory and business strategy are doing far more rigorous work than most people in military strategy are. As that may sound like a strange or even blasphemeous opinion, I'll explain why shortly.

Military strategic theory, up until the mid-20th century, has traditionally been concerned with the manner in which force is converted into political currency. This is a significant task in and of itself. But, as MLR Smith pointed out, this focus has certain limitations:

>Strategy – the consideration of ways, ends and means – is an inherently practical subject, concerned as it is with translating aspirations into realizable objectives. The essential feature of strategy, as Colin Gray describes, is that it functions as the ‘bridge’ between tactics – actions on the ground – and the broader political effects they are intended to produce.[i] For this coherently parsimonious reason strategy, in both its operational and academic manifestations, concentrates on practices as physically revealed phenomena. Strategy is, thereby, revealed in clearly observable facts and things, most notably in its association with actions in war. In this regard, strategy, in its application, and in its study, is about palpable acts and outcomes: armed clashes, organized violence, plans, battles, campaigns, victories and defeats.

The problem that Smith is hinting at here is that strategy often treats the actual making of strategy as a black box. Beginning in the early Cold War, strategic theorists became more self-conscious about the need to study how strategies are actually made and how the dynamics of strategic decision-making works. In my own mind I think that J.C. Wylie and other members of the "control" school produced the most sophisticated thinking on this, with Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Andrew Wohlsetter, Andrew Marshall, Herman Kahn, John Boyd, and Colin S. Gray all taking the idea of "control" and working with it in various ways.

The problem with strategy-as-black-box is that, to paraphrase Evgeny Morozov, it treats strategy as real but the actual designers and executors of strategy as imaginary. The consequence of this is that strategy itself is both fetishized and also poorly understood. Business strategy and organizational theory have looked in depth at a number of deeper questions about what precisely strategy is that tend to pick away at implicit assumptions in military strategy. Strategy Safari is thus a kind of extended review essay on the entirety of strategic theory in competitive organizations that pokes at each school's assumptions.

The schools differ along multiple lines, but for me the biggest differentiator is really the stance that each school takes on the degree to which strategy is an active or passive process. At an extreme are the design, planning, positioning, cognitive, and enterpreneurial schools, which generally place the process of strategy-making in the hands of a chief executive or an centralized control system. At the other end is the environmental school, which casts strategy as simply reactive to an environment. Somewhere in between are the power, cultural, learning, and configuration schools, which make strategy into something that is not vested in the purposeful acts of a chief head honcho or elite class but rather something that emerges from the makeup of the organization itself one way or the other. The learning school casts strategy as a design for collective learning, whereas the cultural school views strategy as a more or less fixed product of the collective culture of an organization.

The power school casts strategy as either the result of internal organizational struggles or an organization's struggle for autonomy from an external controlling force. The configuration school is the most interesting, as it tends to focus on how the design of an organization provides a steering mechanism for stable periods of time and a transformation protocol for disruptive ones. However, I felt that the configuration school was the most poorly explained of all. Strategy Safari doesn't also do that great of a job of winding up the discussion of all of these schools either. But one of the reasons why I think that the business folks are ahead of the guns and tanks folks is that they don't treat strategy as a settled question. Hence, they cannot provide a neat and tidy "in sum..." answer.

There is none, because the divergences between each of these schools are so big that it is difficult to reconcile all of their competing assumptions. However, as the authors make clear, each school has significant flaws such that any competent analyst has to be eclectic in his or her reading and mindset. There is also none of the worship of old greats common to strategic theory in the military world. Mintzberg et al. make it clear that the basic questions of the field are open to debate and will likely continue to be open to debate for the foreseeable future. They do not pretend that everything is known and the rest is merely a matter of application. It seems bizarre to say this given that the stakes in business are so much lower than those in war, but this stuff is really sophisticated compared to the vast majority of contemporary thinking about strategy in conflict.

Tags: review