Enlightenment and strategy

In human history, people always planned, plotted and developed ploys to survive, win and take advantage of their opponents or circumstances more broadly. We simply call it strategy. However, today strategy is associated more with meticulous plans and planning than anything else. This approach to planning resources and movements to achieve one’s objectives coincided with the rise of Enlightenment. von Clauswitz, a Prussian general, has been credited with popularising the science of strategy as we know it… the general also happens to be a student of Enlightenment.

Unlike their predecessors, whilst faith was a significant part of Western society, the Enlightenment thinkers made a shift away from relying on God for guidance and blessing to relying on man’s and woman’s reason and will. The implication was that men and women could – or even should – determine or create their future as they wished. But to do that one needed a strategy. Two hundred years later, no sphere of our life remains untouched by strategy. There are strategies for own’s career, marriage counselling, winning sales, buying property, potty training etc etc.

This is reflected in the basic premise of strategy: not only that it is about winning the war (as Clauswitz saw it) or achieving your life objectives more broadly, but fundamentally it implied that people were or could be in control of events and outcomes insofar as they devised and took the right actions. As such, strategic planning as we know it is not merely an expression of intentions, but it is also about avoiding failure in achieving one’s aspirations. It is well captured in a popular saying ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’.

More recently, evidence from strategy researchers suggests that most strategies developed by corporations come short of their intentions. Different surveys reveal different results, but typically they suggest between 60 and 90 percent of strategies as intended in corporate world fail. At which point that failure happens – if they really fail – is open to debate: some say it is a failure of execution. But it could also be a failure of grasping the reality… the broader reality of life: that our aspirations and ambitions are often incongruent with the way the world works and that no amount of meticulous planning will work.

Interestingly, Leo Tolstoy lived at about the same time as Clauswitz and a period when the strategy concept was becoming popular in military circles. A deep thinker and someone who experienced the battlefields, he refers to strategy in War and Peace as the ‘new science’. In his novel he expresses a different view about strategy: “everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance of which is determined at a particular moment which arrives no one knows when.” In other words, some parts of life are too complex to predict and control the outcomes.




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