A Masterclass in Strategy – Sir Lawrence Freedman at The Oxford Literary Festival

Strategy, as all good bluffers know, is about maximizing relative advantage, which is why deception often plays an important role in its implementation. Books on business strategy are surprisingly dense and inordinately long but usually possess in their kernel one or two simple ideas. Michael Porter who has enjoyed a stellar career and even more stellar consulting day-rate produced the famous trilogy on competing that outweighs The Lord of the Rings and has probably as many laughs. Sir Lawrence Freedman’s new book Strategy A History enters the lists at a whacking 751 pages. For those of us who have neither the strength nor the motivation to read this knight’s tale, there is good news. There will be a literary festival somewhere near you this summer where you will be able to catch the lecture and buy the book. I was one of the lucky ones properly equipped with sturdy back pack who saw him in action last week at Christ Church at the Oxford Literary Festival.

He soon warmed the audience up with a quote from Mike Tyson, ‘Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth’ and went on to argue what many of us rebels have long thought: that strategy is always more interesting from the perspective of the under-dog. Being in a strong or leading position can be notoriously difficult to maintain, especially when such players believe that they can control events, but such intentions he argued are likely to be frustrated. He was gently satirical on the planning performance of big firms in the 1990’s and their tendency to follow fads and fashions. I loved his Sun Tzu game where you make up a gnomic precept in the style of Call My Bluff.

For Sir Lawrence, strategy is less about getting you to a plan, especially if it’s an unrealistic grand dessein but rather a process for getting you to the next step of the journey. The real secret of creating power he argues lies in partnership and coalition. In 1940 Churchill may not have known how to win the war, but he knew how not to lose it, and that was getting the Americans on board.

Plans are prone to misadventure and rather than thinking about strategy as a three act play, we are advised to think of it more like a soap opera, where the only certainty is uncertainty and the likelihood is complete mayhem. You do not need to be a strategic genius to see how the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 could be just a little like the summer of 1914. Thank you for the warning, Sir Lawrence.

Strategy A History
Lawrence Freedman
Oxford, 2013

Paul Christopher Walton

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