I found Brendan Taylor’s view that Foreign Affairs shouldn’t do strategy because they don’t have a ‘few battalions hidden away in the bowels of ‘Gareth’s Gazebo’ somewhat bizarre. Along with the Defence Minister, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sits on the National Security Committee of Cabinet, which considers the major national security issues facing this country. So too does the Treasurer, the Attorney General and the Immigration Minister. The Deputy Prime Minister, who’s the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development is also a member and the Finance Minister is co-opted as required.
Apart from Defence, none of those ministers have a ‘few battalions hidden away in the bowels’ of their departmental offices. But all are expected to be across the delicate business of strategy for key decision-making purposes—and it’s not unreasonable for them to expect their departmental staff to be able to advise them in that regard. So perhaps we should be thinking about strategy in a broader rather than a narrower sense.
Rather than just focusing on the use of military force, it’d be useful to see how business thinks about strategy. After all, if a company doesn’t have a sound strategy it won’t stay in business for long. I concur here with Lance Beath that one of the more useful strategy texts is Richard Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.
Rumelt holds a chair in business and society at UCLA Anderson School of Management. His book argues that the core of good strategy is discovering ‘the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors’; that bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision, and values; and that a strategy that fails to define a variety of plausible and feasible immediate actions misses a critical component.
Rumelt argues that for corporate strategic planning purposes leaders must identify the ‘critical obstacles to forward progress and then develop a coherent approach to overcoming them’. Indeed he notes that most strategic plans have little to do with strategy: they’re ‘three-year or five-year rolling resource budgets, and they coordinate deployment of resources—but that’s not strategy’.
Rumelt points out that strategy starts with identifying changes and that strategic thinking ‘helps us take positions in a world that is confusing and uncertain’.’ A lot of strategy work, he says, isn’t just deciding what to do, but a more basic problem of ‘comprehending the situation’. He emphasises that a good strategy is, in the end, a ‘hypothesis about what will work. Not a wild theory, but an educated judgment’.
I think many of us who’ve read ‘strategy’ documents would agree with Rumelt’s observation that: ‘Bad strategy is vacuous and superficial, has internal contradictions, and doesn’t define or address the problem. Bad strategy generates a feeling of dull annoyance when you have to listen to it or read it’.
Lance Beath is correct that business schools can teach both military organisations and diplomats how to do strategy. The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre might even consider adding some business strategy readings to their course guides.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI.