Lawrence Freedman’s new history of strategy 1 is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distilling at least two decades of thinking on the subject.
Where he gets to is a sceptical view of what we can possibly know about our own futures and what we can do to control them. He outlines, in the final section, the role of narratives and scripts in giving us our illusion of control.
This is not a counsel of despair. There is no fatalism in Freedman's approach but he does suggest that 'real life' requires a degree of detachment from scripts and narratives while making use of them as tools.
Strategists are probably born rather than made but many of the skills can be learned - or rather 'bad' strategic narratives might be unlearned and 'scripts' recognised. His story of continuous failures to 'get it right' becomes a bit cheerier when rationalist progressives begin to be challenged by the behaviourial economists although his devastating account of the rise and fall of the ‘business guru’ is worth reading by the business community even if the rest of the book is put to one side.
Though we remain unconvinced by the radical promises made by behaviourial economics - and consider political science to be a somewhat absurd concept by its very nature - cognitive psychology has helped us here. Increasingly, we are beginning to stop whining that we are not 'rational' and are beginning to see our mentalities as extremely good survival machines for uncertainty.
Freedman is persuasive that we have a sort of double action mind where intuition and 'art' working in real time get things right most of the time under most conditions (his System 1 strategic thinking). Habit and narratives and scripts can get in our way in a crisis and the reasoning abilities of his System 2 thinking enable us analytically and critically to correct our own biases and errors.
However, we can only do this in real time, constantly adjusting to realities that are, in themselves, way beyond any form of reasonable long term analysis because of so many variables and unknowns. Perhaps this thinking started with John Boyd's simple but productive concept of OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) but Freedman here develops a more interesting model of struggle.
In essence, the only workable strategy is the intuitive positioning of oneself to win each battle as it comes within a general vision of where one wants to be - and this is not a matter for mathematicians.
1Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (London, 2014)