Guest Editorial > Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman



Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman | Roger Steer

Strategy - an over used word, an over used concept? This book is not for the faint-hearted, according to our guest reviewer, but there is much wisdom to be gleaned for those who persevere.

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman



If you, like me, are in the process of reviewing Strategy Documents; whether Financial strategies, Commissioning strategies, out of hospital strategies, turnaround strategies or communications strategies etc. and are becoming slightly perplexed at the usage of the term strategy for what looks to be a statement of what the authors plan to do next this book provides a grounding.


With footnotes it is more than 700 pages and reads as the distillation of a lifetimes work by an eminent Professor of War Studies so is not for the faint hearted.


Like any good lifetime it starts promisingly with both great reach into history and across military, political, social and commercial fields. He lists and criticises the various theories used, drawing analogies across the differing areas of human activity. The text is littered with poignant quotes, examples and anecdotes to energize the big read. Given that none of us are professionals in all this it will join up a lot of dots for most readers.


Along the way there is much wisdom to be gleaned. It starts for example with the quote from Mike Tyson “everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth”. This is similar to the military version tending to throw the strategy out of the window as soon as the firing starts. Thus strategic thinking is, we are reminded, the “art of war”. Management is rooted in the ability to handle a horse.


War could be conducted using intelligence or brute force.  Freedman condenses a good classical education as following the Greeks by putting an emphasis on intelligence in deceiving the opponent and putting off the confrontation. Never trust a man who boasts of a good classical education! In contrast he discusses the virtues of Napoleon in achieving great victories by force. Either way we end up in a nuclear stalemate where it took the good sense of Kennedy and Khrushchev to pull back from annihilation: the mathematical experts were encouraging a first strike. Never trust an expert to take the big decisions!


There are asides: for example there is a biblical version of Strategy: Always Trust God and obey his laws. Substitute the Department of Health or a leading firm of management consultants and you can see this approach still being used. Of course God had the plagues to offer as strategic coercion and by then God had a coercive reputation but people were still allowed free will, just as now.


In fact there is a lot of political and social theory in the book; it is not until page 459 that the history of strategy starts to be applied to enterprise management or as Freedman categorises it, “Strategy from above”. This is not necessarily a bad thing but I can see some readers flagging in the middle sections.


The final sections are where it is all supposed to be brought up to date and made most relevant. For me it represents the best summary I have read of how management theory has evolved since I was a student. Many ideas have not stood the test of time. Who would not be moved by the description of the “Re-engineering Industrial Complex” as an “iron triangle of powerful interest groups: top managers of big companies, big-time management consultancies and big-league information technology vendors where it suited them all to make Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) appear not only essential in theory but successful in practice”. The author quotes approvingly this conclusion: “the Re-engineering Revolution” took potentially valuable innovation and experimentation but added exaggerated promise and heightened expectation leading to “faddishness and failure””.


The companies promoting BPR went out of business when the bubble burst but there does seem to be an echo in the “Transformation” business.


In the end as post-modernist theories take over, replacing rational models of decision making and strategizing with propaganda, narratives and framed scripts designed to persuade, manipulate and achieve victory by deception (the triumph of David Cameron from public relations over Harold Wilson the statistician) we are left with the sense of history repeating itself. We all need to beware the Trojan horse, tricksters and those that would stab you in the back.


Personally I have some residual affection for the rational models. They are manipulated and fail to capture the vested interests and the bigger issues but this only proves that skill in presentation and judgement in interpretation remain as vital parts of the process. The authors’ final words are to see strategy as a script for an ongoing soap opera where the strategist hopes for a happy ending but all too often presages tragedy.  A sad but realistic end I fear.


A book for grown-ups.


Roger Steer



“Strategy: A History” by Lawrence Freedman is published by OUP 2013 £25