Saturday, May 10, 2003

Clausewitz (II)

Another critical difference between Clausewitz and Michael Porter grows naturally from the descriptive/prescriptive difference. Because Porter has templates, models, and generic strategies, he devotes little attention to the qualities required of a successful strategist. Clausewitz, in contrast, focuses on those qualities which mark the great commander.

"Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one's own conscience." (On War, Page 101)

"If we pursue the demands that war makes on those who practice it, we come to the region dominated by the powers of the intellect. War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth." [page 101]

"If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light that leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow the faint light wherever it may lead. The first of these qualities is described by the French term coup d'oeil; the second is determination." [page 102]

"Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course, it wears down the machine as well." [page 119]

Business is not war. People do not die because of flawed marketing campaigns. As sad as US Air's collapse is, the consequences for the workers are minimal compared to the fate of the Poles after the Nazi victory in 1939.

Still, the qualities Clausewitz identifies are important for executives and managers.

Friction, (in the Clausewitzian sense) exists in every organization. Overcoming it requires will. In the absence of executive will, ambitious efforts gradually bog down-- deadlines are missed, results fall short of promises.

Rather than addressing the need for project managers with the requisite will, American business usually opts for project management templates, project management software, project management certification, etc.

Compare this to how the US Army developed in world war two. There the key was finding the right man with the right talent, not the right template or workshop.

Historians note that one of George Marshall's signal contributions to success was his selection of the generals who would hold high command. Millett and Murray in their book A War to Be Won note that Marshall "had an exceptional eye for talent and over the course of the war he would make few mistakes in the selection and promotion of senior army officers." (page 272)

And this is how they evaluate the US Army's performance in France:

"the American's had barely three years before their troops were committed to combat. Consequently, many units that fought in Normandy displayed a depressing lack of tactical sophistication. Nevertheless, most US formations exhibited greater adaptability than their British counterparts, and their learning curve was steady and steep. Such improvements owed much to the flexibility of a citizen army, as well as to the ruthlessness with which Eisenhower sacked senior officers who failed." (page 417)

In some ways determination is more necessary for managers than military leaders. Not that portion of determination that depends on physical courage, but, rather, the moral courage that is required to handle great responsibilities and decisions. Because business action goes forward at a much slower pace than military operations, executives live in a state of near perpetual indecision: they decide on an action and then must wait, sometimes for months and years, before they know the outcome. This tempts them to tinker, revise, and reverse course.

Most of the time it also take a form of moral courage to face hard facts in business. Until the problem is really bad, there are many ways gloss over the critical problems with irrelevant or trivial facts. Eventually, the truth will out, of course, and the problems will be much worse because of the delay.

Similarly, there are plausible and popular solutions and then there are those that will really work.

"We trained hard... but everytime we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was learn later in life that we tend to meet new situations by reorganizing... and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."
Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon

Only executives who have both discernment and determination are likely to choose the real solution not the false one.

Determination, however, is not a panacea. Note that Clausewitz warned that "it wears down the machine as well." Just as there are no good one factor economic models, so there is no magic trait that defines military greatness for Clausewitz.

Interestingly enough, the Prussian/German army came to believe that the most dangerous officers were those who were energetic but stupid. There was a place for those who were stupid but lazy, but their energetic brethern were to be weeded out. (The best commanders were seen as those who were brilliant and lazy, smart energetic types being consigned to staff roles.)

See Part I here and the Clausewitz home page here.

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