*On Monday night, February 17, 2020, I spoke at a gathering of business, public, and non-profit leaders in Wellington, New Zealand. It was called the “Strategy Forge,” and I was honored to be the first to speak in the series. The host – a design firm called We Create Futures – maintains a website dedicated to the series. What follows below is a transcript from an interview prior to the event, based on themes that came up in the talk.
I am originally from Minnesota which is in the north in the United States. The best way of explaining it to a Kiwi or an New Zealander is; I am from a place that is dominated by a single sport, which is ice hockey. And so every kid that I knew growing up, played hockey.
When I first came to New Zealand in 2010, and we lived here for two years, instantly I recognized rugby as a similar way of life from where I grew up in Northern Minnesota and the United States. From Minnesota, I grew up playing ice hockey. I wanted to continue to play it in university and I did for a couple of years at West Point. So I went to school at our military academy, our Sandhurst. Unfortunately I broke a couple of bones and hockey stopped being a thing for me.
As soon as I graduated, while we didn’t anticipate it in 2002, by the spring of 2003, I was in Iraq. For me, I was confronted full in the face, with real world problems at a relatively young age, and that’s for me where I started to think about strategy as a discipline as a practice as a product, grappling with real world problems with real world consequences. With lives. So it ‘s really in my early 20s where this began in a lot of ways.
What was the trigger that spurred you into joining the military?
I wanted to play hockey.
So, when you go to school at our military academies, you have the ability to continue playing sport. I went there to be a hockey player and I came out as a second lieutenant. When you’re there, those four years of university change you. By the time I graduated I was on my way to a career without even really knowing about it. I should say, I am a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Now. Anything I say is my own ideas don’t reflect the US government in any way.
Who was the first strategic writer or strategic thinking you encountered when you’re in the military?
There’s a writer that writes quite a bit about military strategy named Colin Gray, who actually taught at the University of Reading in the UK. I followed him and he’s who I worked on my PhD with.
The neat thing about strategy is that, you know, it’s a search for success in many different walks of life. And you find, not just in military literature, of course, it begins with military literature, we were talking about this. The word strategy is derived from the Greek for Strategos, which is the word for general. So it starts in a military context, but the business community, the policy community, there are so many other walks of life that have embraced it.
If you pick up Simon Sinek most recent book about the business world, roughly a third of his acknowledgments are to a military crowd. He gets his examples and his ideas from military thinkers. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, has written a book recently about what he calls Blitzscaling which is built from principles from blitzkrieg or lightning war in the Second World War. So they’re obvious applications across disciplines, whether you’re in business government or the middle. I kind of read pretty widely for that reason.
I’m going to get right into the book straightaway. Because you’ve authored and edited a couple of books to do with fiction and strategy, and it’s going to be what you’re talking about tonight at the event. And I’m a big star wars nerd. So tell me about the book. Tell me about Strategy Strikes Back.
So strategy Strikes Back came from a moment of clarity while serving in a military headquarters and Korea. So I was serving in a forward station US military headquarters, but half of the staff was Korean, South Korean army officers.
What you find pretty quickly when you’re working across cultures like that, is that you don’t have a common frame of reference for a lot of discussions on strategy on us as a common terrain that everybody agrees upon. Korean army officers know a whole heck of a lot about the Korean War. American military officers know quite a bit about the Second World War and the American Civil War. So we were starting at different vantage points. And there was a moment while I was in Seoul, north of Seoul, where I was out on a run and I just had this epiphany that Star Wars is the universal war. It’s the one war, everyone knows something about.
Now I get it. It’s a space drama. It’s a space opera. But there are elite troops. There are super weapons. There are assassins, mercenaries, rebels, a very strong military power, a dominant military power. There’s there’s elements in the story and on screen that you can see in the real world. And the idea was this, that we can use that series as a jumping off point to generate and catalyse conversations about strategy in the real world.
It transcends languages, cultures, generations. General Stan McChrystal wrote the foreword to that book. And what was so amazing for me was to learn that the very first movie he went to see as a lieutenant after he finished, US Army Ranger School, which is a really tough physical school was the very first Star Wars movie in the late 70s. He is multiple generations separate from me, but that’s an experience he and I have had in common. So that’s a good start point. For us to have a conversation about strategy.
I remember meeting a Japanese, a Japanese Air Force officer who spoke almost no English, but when we met, he ripped a patch off his shoulder to show me that his unit insignia included Darth Vader and the death star in the imagery. That’s another point where that we have in common. It works across generations and cultures and I think it works beyond a military audience. Everyone knows Star Wars. So that’s where those books came from.
I think the thing that struck me, even though I’m only three or four chapters in, was the quality and the depth of the thinking that’s just above and beyond the idea of war on the battlefield. It’s also about world building. It’s about morals and ethics. When people think about military strategy , maybe it’s out of context, and just think it’s about the battlefield. And what the book starts to do is unpack layers of complexity and morality, ethics, philosophy, existentialism, that supersedes the idea of the title of the book.
Do you want to talk to that?
So one of my chapters was about Yoda and looking at Yoda as you would evaluate or assess the quality of a strategist. And I’m I’m giving a little bit away but not too much. But Yoda was not a very good strategist. He purposefully chose not to look forward and not to see the threat that was emerging to the community. That he was charged to protect. I think there’s value in taking a movie and using the characteristics we expect or believe our value in the real world and using them to say “this is what right looks like, this is what good looks like.” That’s one aspect of the films. Another one is just using the films as a marker for understanding cultural change.
So, the very first film. The first scene you see is a damsel in distress, a woman in need. You know, Princess Leia needs to be saved by men. And if you look back at the number of lines in the first film, in A New Hope, women had about 5% of the script in that film. In the new newest generation, where Rey is now a Jedi and Princess Leia is now general Leia, women have about 40% of the script. And we see a sea change in the way that women are portrayed on screen. If you look back to The real world back in the late 70s, when women joined the US military, they were told that when they were given a rifle to train with that it was just so that they wouldn’t be afraid of the weapon.
Women’s roles in combat were limited and constrained, as now we have women that are in our most elite forces. And that arc, that social change, that change in the way that we see women in society and militarily, you can see it in the movies. And for someone who has two daughters. That’s a pretty powerful symbol. That they can be a Jedi and they can be a general to the organization in the US military that I’m a part of.
The commander before the one now was that was the organization was led by the first female four star general ever in the history of the US Army. As a combat Commander General Laurie Robinson. She was charged with the protection of the United States of the homeland. And so I think the film’s fulfill a social role as well. To be a mirror on society. But also to project where we’re going. So I, you know, I think films kind of give us a really neat way to have a conversation about, you know, it seems like entertainment, but it’s about bigger things.
There’s an interesting quote in one of the books. There’s two quotes by the same person, but one of the quotes is about science fiction not only being about the future, but actually about being things that we’re seeing within the present. That seems to reflect that.
We talked about that. One of my co-editors is Max Brooks who wrote World War Z. A book that did very, very well around the world, because it told a story about a zombie apocalypse around the world. And for me, as a military officer, it’s a great value, not just to sit down and enjoy a movie or a book, that’s about some other reality where zombies exist. But for me, his story is a way of looking at what a global pandemic would look like. What Ebola or the Corona virus could become.
And that’s a scary thought, but for someone whose job is to think the unthinkable and be prepared for it, problems that only come up every few decades or even centuries, that’s a value. And for people in the business community who may encounter a new problem, a new problem to them, being able to think beyond reality can be of great value. Not just for something that might happen decades from now, but for something that might be happening tomorrow. We’re sitting in Wellington right now, earthquakes have happened, they will happen again. And so it’s a value to be able to think through what that looks like. as scary as it might be, fiction can help us do that.
In terms of things like strategic foresight and futures studies, when we create scenarios, we try and be as diverse and exploratory in those scenarios as possible, because it’s not necessarily about critical uncertainties that might span along a spectrum, it’s about the fact that change happens when things clash together in unexpected ways. And to think through scenarios like that is not about planning per se, but it’s about exactly what you said, being prepared. It’s a tool to be able to address that diversity of possibility. So then it’s easier to deal with, because you have actually thought about it.
Most of the time when I encounter limited space, strategic thinking it’s because people choose to limit their thinking to what is obvious or thinkable. The world is full of unthinkable events. The current president of the United States is an unthinkable phenomenon. What happened in Australia is fires this season, or is except for a very select few and unthinkable phenomenon. And, and sitting here in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, it’s almost unthinkable to think that there could be another devastating earthquake, like the one that happened in 18. I think it was 1840 or 1855. And we’re off of the 8.2 magnitude quake, you know, but unthinkable happens.
Fortune doesn’t just favour the bold. It favours those that are willing to address the unthinkable before it happens. So I do think that it’s of great value. No matter what walk of life you’re in, you know, education, government, the law, business, the military, firefighting, the police force, whatever it might be.
Just even the library system here in Wellington having to shut down one of, I think the most beautiful libraries probably on the planet. Maybe that’s overstatement, but I love that library and the fact that it’s shut down right now, I’m sure five years ago or before it happened was unthinkable. But you’re grappling with that. So I do think that there’s anyone who is seeking success in any endeavor. There is great value in being able to stretch that direction.
We talked about limited strategic thinking. What it seems that you’re saying is good strategic thinking comes from diverse thinking and perspectives, but also people that are brave enough to allow people to think about this issue. And it seems like what you’re saying is to be good at strategy, you need to think about the possible but you also need to think about the (im)plausible.
So there’s no greater aid to strategic thinking than diverse ideas and divergent ideas. And I don’t necessarily mean diversity in terms of gender and race and and and also sorts of things, but life experiences matter quite a bit. The more ideas that you have that you engage with, whether you accept them or you dismiss them. It’s all part of that funneling process that you were just describing.
No organization has the ability to follow every lead and go down every single rat hole – to follow every possible future, but the better ones are the ones that are most willing to accept the multiplicity of possibilities and then be prepared to adapt to the widest range of them at varying times. There’s nothing more common in organizations, then what I prefer to call placebo strategy, which is the idea that you go through the motions of strategic thinking without any of the actual substance of strategic thought.
The classic example is an off site where people will leave their normal place of business to go somewhere to have big ideas. And really what ends up happening is this. Previously largely agreed upon consensus that everyone walks away feeling happy about, but strategic thinking is uncomfortable. It’s making choices. It’s choosing to do things that are important and setting aside some things that are urgent.
And it’s really hard because most organizations evolve over time to be shaped to a need and those needs – it’s what you need to do today. But if you perceive that a future environment is going to be different or distinct in some way, then you it’s almost riskier to maintain status quo than it is to slough off some of the things that you’re doing now, in order to better be prepared for and then test some anticipated future.
It’s scary because you absorb certain costs now for some uncertain benefit tomorrow. I actually empathize with organizations trying to do it because it’s an ugly process. It’s not a pretty process. It’s uncomfortable. It’s like getting sand in your eyes, but sometimes you need to risk the sand in order to see the beach better.
There’s a term in anthrocomplexity that says “consensus is the enemy of coherence.” The idea that we can all use group-think to come up with an idea but actually it’s not coherent with the environment that we see and potential futures that might happen. So, that’s a big not struggle, but it’s a big thing to try and avoid group-think, in order to really think about different possibilities.
Group-think is so difficult in the sense that leadership naturally brings us to group-think because all of our energy on a daily basis is spent trying to bring together and harness the energy of a bunch of different people from different walks of life. And so our natural inclination is to produce group-think because we want to be effective every day.
But the reality is what makes you effective today. Doesn’t necessarily help you a month from now, a year from now, a decade from now, and sometimes you have to sacrifice some efficiency today to forge a more effective instrument for tomorrow. It’s hard. I’m not suggesting it’s easy and anyone that does i think is disingenuous. If life was easy in this respect, we’d all have six pack abs and millions of dollars in the bank account, but we don’t. Because life is hard, strategy is even harder.
That talks to this idea of the strategy bridge, that thing that connects the ways and the means. Do you think it’s that challenge, it’s really hard for people to think about the future in a way that’s not as immediate as the problems that they have now? The things that they have to deliver tomorrow, rather than being able to think about and create action one year, two years, three years, ahead?
It depends on a couple different things. I think it depends on the certainty of the environment. How well do you know the problem? How well do you understand the terrain you’re standing on? And it depends on the stakes. The higher the stakes and the and the greater the uncertainty, then building that bridge becomes more difficult and variable and needs to be adjusted a whole heck of a lot more. Because the vision might stay the same, the compass heading, True North, might still be the same, but the conditions of the environment are so variable that you have to be maximally flexible and adaptive to be able to get there.
And then there’s another problem. There’s a whole other set of problems and that’s the human factor. I think of it as because I come from a military environment. It’s the War of the knife and the war of the map. And the knife fight is the day to day interaction tussling with the problem. And that’s inherently constraining, it puts blinders on everyone, because all you’re thinking about is the enemy, or the adversary, or the environment in front of you. And all you can think about is fighting and defeating the problem that’s right in front of your face. And that’s sort of from the soldiers perspective.
And then there’s the War of the map. And that’s the fundamental logic of the fight. It’s the, the larger 30,000 foot perspective, it’s the rational mind, in command. And these are the problems of making strategy happen. What I find really difficult sometimes is reading books on strategy that are written like a cookbook? Add a little flour, add a little bit of salt, add some yeast and you’ve got dough.
And the reality it’s much more like gardening, but gardening on multiple continents at the same time, because the soil conditions are different. The weather patterns are different, you know, if you do strategy, right, it’s in my mind that I’ve defined it as an orientation towards success in a complex competitive challenge. You know, it’s a lean, it’s a default setting, that it’s it’s a bet that you make on a regular basis, but you’re revisiting that bet a lot. If x then y. If I do this, then I believe that on balance, I will get something better And that’s the objective in a lot of ways for me.
In a lot of ways, there is no good or bad strategy. There is a superior or inferior strategy, because it’s always measured against the environment that you’re given. It’s not taking a math test. Or it’s not a physics exam, where there are certainties and objective realities, and quantities, it’s how well did I do given an opponent and an environment right now. And the report card on that is always coming back. There’s a feedback loop to that. So that’s what makes this both so hard and so easy at the same time.
There’s two things there that I want to touch upon. One of the biggest things I’ve seen historically is when people develop strategy or placebo strategy, is that they get a template from the internet and it says; your vision, what are your values? Where do you need to get? What do you need to create to get that? but the thing that’s missing within that, and one of the big things we try to do in our work, is build situational awareness within the team, within the organization. Because that gives you the lay of the land. The basis to start to build the map. And when you when you think about that in a military context from like, the ideas of reconnaissance or whatever that may be, the idea of SA seems to be really foundational in order to build or as a building block for good strategy.
If you don’t understand your environment, you’ve already lost. I mean, you really have. I hate to put it that way, but it’s one the oldest precepts at least in military strategy, it’s in the Art of War, the Sun Tzu compilation of ideas from 2500 years ago. Knowing yourself and knowing your environment or your enemy is the first step. And so you’re right, you do see a lot of paint by numbers. What’s our why, what are we doing and how are we going to do it?
Extinction rebellion in the United Kingdom, talks about a story, a strategy and a structure. That’s a little bit like saying the objective in the stock market is buy low and sell high. Yes, that’s true on some level, but if you don’t understand the context, the details the devil is always in the details. If you don’t I understand where you are and where you’re going. You know, you’ve already lost. So I think that basic, fundamental starting block is important. And it’s also important to be able to do it objectively, and most organizations can’t do it effectively. They just can’t.
That’s another thing that makes strategy so hard is that it’s hard to be objective about your own performance in a given context. To some extent, naturally, you always want to say we’re doing real well, because we’re alive. We survived. We’re selling enough widgets or we’re still in business. The government hasn’t fallen yet. But that doesn’t mean that five years from now or 10 years from now, there isn’t an obvious aggressor waiting in the wings. To be able to knock you out of the park, to end and that reign, so to speak. And so I do think it’s a great value to have external advice.
Building on that point. One of the other things that I have seen within that idea that concept of placebo strategy is the plan, when that strategy is created, this then becomes the law in terms of what happens. What I really like about your definition of strategy, which is part of the reason that we’re talking together, is that you talk about not only about it being plans, but also the orientation around those plans and how the environment changes, speaking to the idea of Boyd’s OODA loop, being able to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. It speaks to that idea.
Strategy happened on two levels. There are probably 100, 2000, 2,000 definitions of strategy out there. And to some extent, they might all be right. Or at least they’re not really wrong. But when I’ve looked at the field, there’s a balance that you find kind of a center mass, there’s definitions that are more about sort of adaptation, artful adaptation. Being nimble, being quick, adapting to the environment.
And then there are other definitions that are more about design and plans and moving A to B and specified steps. And then there’s another axis or axes, which is tasks specific to some venture in life, whether it be business or otherwise. Then there’s the ambiguous task. It could be about anything. And what you find is that you can toggle left and right and up and down on those two axes. And you can still arrive at a meaningful definition of strategy. It all hinges on what environment you’re operating in.
If you are in the United Kingdom circa three years ago, that campaign between remain and leave, literally came down to those two words. Those words became almost a strategy in and of themselves. They were a call sign, a symbol and a strategy because they were both seeking to influence everyone, everyone from every walk of life. So you had to make the terminology that you’re using incredibly simple. Whereas, you can imagine, if you’re working in a highly technical field, say micro processing or something like that, you can imagine a strategy being much more specific and precise and related to production or related to the creation of new ideas, or conforming to the laws of processing speeds. It all depends on what you’re trying to do, and what audience you’re, you’re trying to influence. So I do think that having that understanding matters so much in building something that is going to be effective and successful.
One of one of the quotes that I have heard you saying, and I am paraphrasing, “Strategy is not about winning or losing but about changing the game.” What does that look like?
This was an insight actually that I picked up watching Game of Thrones.
There’s a scene early on in the series. I think it’s the second season where a main character for those that know the show, his name is Tywin Lannister, and he’s sitting in the ruins of a castle. Describing that the castle was built to be impervious to invasion, that the occupants of that castle had built. His strategy for success was to build the perfect defensible castle.
But one aspect of the environment that he did not plan on was dragons. Was air power. And so the castle was burned to a crisp. It was cinder blocks, it was nothing. And Tywin at one point says that that shift was about how you change the game. Air power or dragons changed the game.
And for me, it’s about creating a durable competitive edge. It’s not about seeking a win tomorrow, or avoiding a loss today. It’s about creating a sustainable edge that over time can continue to put you in the driver’s seat. Continue to put a gap between you and your adversaries.
You might like it or hate it. The current president of the United States has changed the political game in the United States. And he’s done it for years. And to some extent, he’s operating like those dragons burning that castle. Don’t take too much out of that metaphor. But, you know, those are the kinds of durable competitive edges you’re looking for. It’s not just the creation of a high five tomorrow. It’s what a sustained victory looks like. So that’s that, to me, that’s the objective.
That’s what we’re looking for.