Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On Strategy

The invaluable Al Fin blog has a post up titled The 48 Laws Of Power ... which lay out in synopsis fashion the 48 "laws" of strategy as defined by Robert Greene.  In the comments I pointed out how contradictory Mr. Greene's "laws" are and was invited by the Al Fin blogger to point out other works that I think better describe the precepts of strategic thought.  In an effort to avoid tl;dr in their comments at least, I opted to do all that here instead.

You takes your blog fodder where you finds it I suppose.

For the purposes of this post, I stipulate that Mr. Greene wasn't practicing original scholarship, but attempted to combine different schools of strategic thought into one book (as suggested in the same Al Fin comment stream).

There are basically two formats to presenting strategy, the classical circular structure and the western tradition of linear thinking.  Both have their advantages in detail, but the classical structure - while initially confusing to modern cause-and-effect thinking - offers the more coherent format over the broadest range of application of the fundamentals of the subject.

In the western tradition, strategy is commonly regarded as either a military or political function (and frequently some combination of those).  Clausewitz wrote to a military audience about the force multiplying benefits of logistics as a separate military specialization, particularly as applied to field artillery in support of infantry in both fixed as well as mobile operations.  Necessarily, this involved some examination of the requirements of obtaining political support of what a modern soldier would immediately recognize as a combined arms unit (then a rather novel concept).  Military units are structured for top-down command and are plotted in a pyramidal format.  Not coincidentally, strategies for using such forces are also laid out in the same limited context format.  This may produce effective combat units, but it seriously warps the applicability of the underlying concepts in other applications.

Students of strategy are remiss if they ignore Clausewitz though, his study of strategic principles in a tightly focused application is still the seminal examination of how such processes improve even a highly structured environment, particularly during chaotic events.

In the more overtly political arena can be found that other primary source of western strategic thought, Niccolo Machiavelli.  The Florentine's third book The Art Of War is more a philosophical study of the strategy of warfare than of actual strategy, its titular claim notwithstanding.  Taken together, The Prince and The Discourses offer a much better study of the justifications behind many strategic principles, but even these don't spend nearly enough narrative on the structure and inter-related nature of the actual principles themselves.

So we come to Sun Tzu.  Frankly, I find most translations of his The Art Of War to be nearly as inscrutable as the original text.  As a result, I cannot recommend strongly enough the work of Gary Gagliardi (pronounced "gah-lar-dy").  The Amazon page dedicated to his work has a decent bio of his qualifications along with (big surprise) links to many of his books examining how classical strategy applies to achieving understanding and success in a variety of ordinary human activity.  As a starting point, I recommend The Golden Key To Strategy or possibly The Bing-Fa, Martial Arts Strategy for those more inclined toward or experienced in martial arts either military or sport.  Almost any of Gary's business-oriented books will take the reader through the identical principles in that setting, as will The Art Of War + The Art Of Love in a personal context.

As can be seen, my assertion that classical strategy applies to all aspects of human activity isn't quite as unlikely as might be supposed.

Anyone just beginning a study of classical strategy would benefit from Gary's website, but the basic insight that classical strategy is conceived and presented as a circular whole, that chapter 1 takes off from the principles described in chapter 13, will help a reader new to Sun Tzu experience at least somewhat less initial confusion.  Classical strategy is  - pardon the seeming hippietude - a holistic concept that requires recognition that every principle is moderated and empowered by the context within which every other principle is applied.  It's not as confusing as all that might make it appear, but it can seem complex at first acquaintance.

My thanks to Al Fin for the inspiration to flail away on my favorite hobby horse; I call myself a student of strategy mostly because I long ago recognized I will never master the subject.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I suppose I should mention that I first started blogging at Gary's old strategy site (see here for an archival sample of my supposed insight :)), but I have no involvement with his current site or work nor do I receive compensation from any sales he may garner from my recommendations of his work, FTC disclaimer, yada yada, etc ...


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