Before I began Professor Freedman’s book on strategy, I didn’t realize that I would be embarking on a painstakingly detailed 751 page historical journey of the meaning and applications of an increasingly popular - yet too often poorly defined term - that has evolved over time to become far more flexible than it was fifty years ago.
I also didn’t consider that if I had still been studying for my PhD comprehensive exams in political science or public administration, this book would have served as an excellent reference because many of the chapters summarize and analyze the works of major western political thinkers. Remember that – those of you who are still in graduate school or are thinking about graduate school and need a handy historical resource. This book is a keeper for review at exam time.
The major reason I decided to embark upon Freedman’s journey – and see it through to the end – was because the term strategy (or lack thereof) has become one of those words that are tossed around all too easily by people complaining that so and so or such and such organization has no strategy. But they then fail to define what they mean or they give it such a rigid, outdated meaning that they, in essence, render the term useless.
Freedman argues that strategy (the word, he tells us, derives from the Ancient Greek word “strategoi” or the 10 members of the Athenian War Council) is basically a plan that is flexible enough to change as unforeseen events (or the fog of war or uncertainty) alter the reality of the playing field. He argues that strategies are usually developed in response to the need to respond to some form of adversity – whether in a wartime environment, in business or in government. He also points out the importance of coalitions in strategy formation for good or ill as well as the role of language as a strategic instrument.
This means that strategies are far from immutable. Successful ones are not set in concrete that do not change in response to changing environments. Quite the opposite: Whether an unforeseen opportunity presents itself, the pursuit of the strategy itself may trigger an unforeseen consequence, or something else suddenly arises so the strategy and strategist must adapt to the new realities. In this sense, the concept of strategy is very much a part of the realist school of thought – and action – and, in Freedman’s words, much of strategy is “about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination.” (p 628)
Strategic thinking is not bean counting or quantitative simplification
Freedman is critical of the numbers games played by the quantifiers and games theorists – the people who have relegated strategic thinking to bean counting and simplification – who have, for the sake of the ease of quantification, turned evaluation into a game in which nothing consequential is measured because, well, the consequential doesn’t lend itself to quantification.