The Strategic Myth
(or why tactics matters and strategy is largely a waste of time)
Take Napoleon for example. A brilliant tactical mind, able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, an intuitive opportunist if there ever was one. However for famous people its never enough to just have a good tactical instinct, they want to be seen as having had a grand overall vision – a strategy – all along. So they wouldn’t argue if their sycophantic supporters retrospectively fitted a strategy to a run of tactical successes. But Napoleon fully understood his own genius and its limitations. Famously when asked for what he wanted in a general, he didn’t blather on about them having grand strategic visions – he merely wanted them to be “lucky”. Which interprets as wanting them to be the kind of general that makes their own luck by making shrewd tactical judgments in difficult circumstances.
So my thesis is that there is really no such thing as a strategy. Clever people are making it up as they go along and if it succeeds, then after the event they will maintain that they had a strategy all along.
Take DCU. Every 5 years of so we would go through the process of developing a strategic plan (and you would think that the Soviet experience of 5-year plans would have been enough to kill off this kind of thinking, but in fact the Universities are the last bastion of Stalinism). Nothing reads as irrelevant as a 5 year old strategy document. When strategies fail, as of course most often they will, they are simply forgotten and pushed under the carpet, and not talked about any more. DCU Centres of Excellence anyone? In fact most staff realise instinctively that strategic plans are just a waste of time, and don’t even bother to read them. It’s like a good bus service, if you miss this one it doesn’t really matter as there will be another one along shortly. But it’s the waste of time and energy that goes into this whole line of thinking that is so objectionable.
Irish Governments are classic slaves to the strategic myth. They are constantly developing plans, commissioning reports - and then shelving them. Which does of course give the impression of having a plan. In fact they are rather cluelessly thrashing around, trying to identify some other country’s strategy to slavishly follow, and missing any number of tactical opportunities in the process. Strategic thinking is a refuge for the intellectually limited. It’s also a great cover for can-kicking and the avoidance of decision making.
In the modern fast-moving world, strategy is even more irrelevant. The whole basis of the proposed strategy is likely to change overnight, rendering the strategy irrelevant, often before the ink is dry on it.
And go on, admit it – what we really admire is the good tactician, the person who can “take the ball on the hop” and do something innovative and clever with it. The person who sees an opportunity, rips up the strategy document, and just goes for it.