Military history

Chapter 38

Stories and Scripts

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

—Hilary Mantel

Chapter 1 concluded, after a discussion of primates and the more primitive human societies, by identifying some elemental features of strategic behavior. Such behavior emerged out of social structures that invited conflict, recognized the distinctive attributes of potential opponents or allies, displayed sufficient empathy to find ways to influence their actions, and were able to prevail through deception or coalition as well as brute force. These features have regularly come to the fore as we have considered strategy in both theory and practice. We have also come across a number of definitions of strategy, many of which are perfectly serviceable, although none quite capture all these elements. Some have been quite specific to particular spheres, notably the military, referring to engagements, maps, and deployments. Others have been more general, referring to the interaction of ends, ways and means, combinations of long-term goals and courses of action, systems of expediencies and forms of domination, dialectics of opposing wills and interdependent decision-making, relationships to environments, advanced problem-solving, and a means of coping with uncertainty. The preface offered “the art of creating power” as my short definition. This has the advantage of allowing the impact of strategy to be measured as the difference between the outcome anticipated by reference to the prevailing balance of power and the actual outcome after the application of strategy. It helps explain why underdogs find strategy most challenging. It does not, however, provide guidance for practitioners. To this end this chapter explores the value of considering strategy as a story about power told in the future tense from the perspective of a leading character.

Those who want to be sure that their strategy is well done can draw on many forms of advice, from professional manuals to self-help books to specialist consultancies to academic journals. Some prescriptions are exhortatory while others are more analytical; some struggle to rise above banalities while others are couched in terms barely intelligible to lay readers lacking higher mathematics or the ability to penetrate postmodernist codes. Some insist on a paradigm shift. Others suggest nurturing an inspirational personality or urge close attention to detail. Faced with such diverse and often contradictory advice it is hard to avoid the conclusion that while strategy is undoubtedly a good thing to have, it is also a hard thing to get right. The world of strategy is full of disappointment and frustration, of means not working and ends not reached.

The various strands of literature examined in this book all began confidently with a belief that given the right measures demanding objectives could be achieved on a regular basis. The Napoleonic phenomenon led Jomini and Clausewitz to explain to aspiring generals how they might win decisive battles and so decide the fate of nations. The recollection of the French Revolution and gathering social and political unrest encouraged the first professional revolutionaries to imagine equally decisive insurrections from which new forms of social order would emerge. Over a century later, large American corporations—apparently unassailable and enjoying benign market conditions—were encouraged by Chandler, Drucker, and Sloan to look to strategy as a guide to the organizational structures and long-term plans that could sustain this happy state of affairs.

In all three cases, experience undermined the foundations of this confidence. Victory in battle did not necessarily lead to victory in war. The ruling classes found ways to meet popular demands for political and economic rights that diverted revolutionary pressures. The comfortable position of American manufacturers was rocked by international competition, notably—but not solely—from Japan. Yet these setbacks did not lead to the initial frameworks being abandoned. Military strategists continued to yearn for a route to decisive victories even as they were frustrated by grinding campaigns of attrition or popular resistance and guerrilla ambushes. Revolutionaries continued to seek ways to mobilize the broad masses to overthrow governments even as the Western democracies legitimated expressions of discontent and paths to reform, and as these encouraged quite different and generally more productive types of political strategy. It was only in the business sphere that the flaws in the early strategic models were so evident that they were soon left behind by a frenetic search for alternatives which came to involve a range of competing, often contradictory, and confusing propositions.

The problems experienced with strategy were a natural consequence of its Enlightenment origins. Progressive rationalism, later identified by Weber as an unstoppable secular trend manifest in the rise of bureaucracies, was expected to squeeze out emotions and romance, thereby removing intrusive sources of error and uncertainty. The prospect was one of human affairs ordered on the basis of accumulated knowledge. But relevant knowledge was hard to accumulate or present with sufficient precision to guide practitioners, who were faced with a series of competing demands and uncertainties and often had little real choice but to “muddle through.”1 The assumption of rationalism, influencing not only the theorizing but expectations of how it would be received and acted upon, turned out to be inadequate.

Strategies were neither designed nor implemented in controlled environments. The longer the sequence of planned moves, the greater the number of human agents who must act in particular ways, the more extensive the ambition of the project, the more likely that something would go wrong. Should the first moves in the planned sequence of events fail to produce the intended effects matters could soon go awry. Situations would become more complex and the actors more numerous and contrary. The chains of causation would become attenuated and then broken altogether. Without going as far as Tolstoy, who dismissed the idea of strategy as presumptuous and naïve, it was evident that successful outcomes would depend on trying to affect a range of institutions, processes, personalities, and perceptions that would often be quite impervious to influence. Warning against the belief that history was full of lessons, Gordon Wood argued that there was but one big one: “Nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.” History taught “skepticism about people’s ability to manipulate and control purposely their own destinies.”2 Strategies were not so much means of asserting control over situations but ways of coping with situations in which nobody was in total control.

The Limits of Strategy

Did this leave strategy with any value? “Plans are worthless,” observed President Eisenhower, drawing on his military experience, “but planning is everything.”3 The same could be said about strategy. Without some prior deliberation it might be even harder to cope with the unexpected, pick up the cues of a changing situation, challenge set assumptions, or consider the implications of uncharacteristic behavior. If strategy is a fixed plan that set out a reliable path to an eventual goal, then it is likely to be not only disappointing but also counterproductive, conceding the advantage to others with greater flexibility and imagination. Adding flexibility and imagination, however, offers a better chance of keeping pace with a developing situation, regularly re-evaluating risks and opportunities.

A productive approach to strategy requires recognizing its limits. This applies not only to the benefits of strategy but also to its domain. Boundaries are required. As strategy has become so ubiquitous, so that every forwardlooking decision might be worthy of the term, it now risks meaninglessness, lacking any truly distinguishing feature. One obvious boundary is to insist on its irrelevance in situations involving inanimate objects or simple tasks. It only really comes into play when elements of conflict are present. Situations in which this conflict is only latent are rarely approached in a truly strategic frame of mind. Rather than assume trouble people prefer instead to trust others with the expectation of being trusted in turn. Within a familiar environment, working with an “in-group,” overtly strategic behavior can lead to resentment and resistance without commensurate gain. People can be at the wrong end of power relationships without either realizing or caring, because of the way they have been encouraged to think about their life circumstances or because of their habitual reluctance to challenge established hierarchies and conventions. What makes the difference, so that strategy comes to the fore, is the recognition of conflict. Some event, or shift in social attitudes or patterns of behavior, can challenge what had previously been taken for granted. Familiar situations may be seen with fresh eyes and those previously part of the “in-group” come to be viewed with suspicion as defectors to the “out-group.”

If emerging situations of conflict bring strategy into the picture, a desire to play down conflict can take it out. This can even be the case with official documents with strategy in the title which are largely designed to demonstrate a capacity for long-term thought. In these documents strategy is packaged as an authoritative forward look, reflecting the approved views of a government or company. Hew Strachan has complained of how strategy has come to be abused in this way, at the expense of its original role as a link between ends and means. By extending strategy into all governmental endeavors the word is “robbed” of its meaning leaving only “banalities” behind.4 Certainly many “strategy” documents deliberately avoid the topic, lack focus, cover too many dissimilar or only loosely connected issues and themes, address multiple audiences to the satisfaction of none, and reflect nuanced bureaucratic compromises. They are often about issues that might have to be addressed rather than ways of dealing with specific problems. Consequently, their half-lives are often short. To the extent that such documents have any strategic content they are about a broad orientation to the environment, what became known in business strategy as “positioning.” It may well be that in a broadly stable and satisfactory environment, in which goals are being realized with relative ease, there may be little need for anything sharper and bolder. Only at moments of environmental instability, as latent conflict becomes actual, when real choices have to be made does something resembling a true strategy become necessary.

So what turns something that is not quite strategy into strategy is a sense of actual or imminent instability, a changing context that induces a sense of conflict. Strategy therefore starts with an existing state of affairs and only gains meaning by an awareness of how, for better or worse, it could be different. This view is quite different from those that assume strategy must be about reaching some prior objective. It may well be more concerned with coping with some dire crisis or preventing further deterioration in an already stressful situation. So the first requirement might be one of survival. This is why as a practical matter strategy is best understood modestly, as moving to the “next stage” rather than to a definitive and permanent conclusion. The next stage is a place that can be realistically reached from the current stage. That place may not necessarily be better, but it will still be an improvement upon what could have been achieved with a lesser strategy or no strategy at all. It will also be sufficiently stable to be a base from which to prepare to move to the stage after that. This does not mean that it is easy to manage without a view of a desired end state. Without some sense of where the journey should be leading it will be difficult to evaluate alternative outcomes. Like a grandmaster at chess, a gifted strategist will be able to see the future possibilities inherent in the next moves, and think through successive stages. The ability to think ahead is therefore a valuable attribute in a strategist, but the starting point will still be the challenges of the present rather than the promise of the future. With each move from one state of affairs to another, the combination of ends and means will be reappraised. Some means will be discarded and new ones found, while some ends will turn out to be beyond reach even as unexpected opportunities come into view. Even when what had been assumed to be the ultimate goal is reached, strategy will not stop. Victory in a climactic event such as a battle, an insurrection, an election, a sporting final, or a business acquisition will mean a move to a new and more satisfactory state but not the end of struggle. What has gone before will set the terms for the next set of encounters. The effort required to achieve victory may have left resources depleted. A crushed rebellion may add to the resentment of the oppressed; bruising election campaigns can hamper coalition formation; hostile takeovers make merging two companies more difficult.

One reason why it is so difficult to anticipate how situations might develop over many stages results from the need to address many relationships. Strategy is often presented as being solely about opponents and rivals. In the first instance, however, colleagues and subordinates must agree on the strategy and how it should be implemented. Achieving an internal consensus often requires great strategic skill and must be a priority because of the weaknesses caused by divisions, but the accommodation of different interests and perspectives can result in a compromised product—suboptimal when dealing with a capable opponent. The larger the circle of cooperation required, including third parties who might become allies, the harder it can become to reach agreement. While there can be tensions among supposed friends, there can also be areas of shared interest that provide the basis for a negotiation. Rival states might prefer to avoid all-out war, political parties to maintain standards of civility, and businesses to avoid pushing prices down to unprofitable levels. This interaction between cooperation and conflict is at the heart of all strategy. There is a spectrum marked by complete consensus (absence of any disputes) at one end and complete control (disputes smothered by one party’s domination) at the other. Both extremes are rare and almost certainly unstable as circumstances change and new types of interest emerge. In practice, the choice may well be between degrees of conciliation or coercion. As the best way of coping with superior strength is often to put together a coalition or break up that of the opponent, strategy is apt to involve compromises and negotiations. “The pursuit of relative power,” Timothy Crawford has observed, “is as much about subtracting and dividing as about adding and multiplying.” This can require difficult forms of accommodation to keep a party neutral and away from the enemy camp.5 All this explains why strategy is an art and not a science. It comes into play when situations are uncertain, unstable, and thus unpredictable.

System 1 Strategy and System 2 Strategy

Developments in cognitive psychology mean that we now know much more than before about how human beings cope with uncertain situations. They encourage the view that strategic thinking can and often does start in the subconscious before it breaks into conscious thought. It can originate as apparently intuitive judgments, reflecting what can now be labeled System 1 thinking. System 1 strategies draw on an ability to read situations and see possibilities that less-strategic intelligences would miss. This form of strategic reasoning has been appreciated since classical times. It was manifested as metis, exemplified by Odysseus, who was resourceful, coped with ambiguity, and used artful language to lead the in-group and disorient the out-group. Napoleon spoke of the coup d’œil as the “gift of being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain.” It was at the heart of Clausewitz’s belief in military genius, a “highly developed mental aptitude” that allowed the great general to pick the right moment and place for attack. Jon Sumida described Clausewitz’s concept of genius as involving “a combination of rational intelligence and subrational intellectual and emotional faculties that make up intuition.” It was the only basis of decision in the “face of difficult circumstances such as inadequate information, great complexity, high levels of contingency, and severe negative consequences in the event of failure.”6 Napoleon described this as an inborn talent, but Clausewitz saw that it could also be developed through experience and education.

In one of his last published articles, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin spoke up for instinct and flair, challenging the idea that good judgment in politics could be scientific and founded on “indubitable knowledge”.7 “In the realm of political action,” Berlin concluded, “laws are far and few indeed: skills are everything.” The key skill was the ability to grasp what made a situation unique. Great political figures were able to “understand the character of a particular movement, of a particular individual, of a unique state of affairs, of a unique atmosphere, of some particular combination of economic, political, personal factors.” This grasp of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces, sense of the specific over the general, and capacity to anticipate the consequential “tremors” of actions involved a special sort of judgment. This was, he averred, “semi-instinctive.” He described a form of political intelligence, closely resembling metis and capturing the best of System 1 thinking:

. . . a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labeled like so many individual butterflies. To integrate in this sense is to see the data (those identified by scientific knowledge as well as by direct perception) as elements in a single pattern, with their implications, to see them as symptoms of past and future possibilities, to see them pragmatically—that is, in terms of what you or others can or will do to them, and what they can or will do to others or to you.

It was a capacity that could be lost by a focus on formal methodologies and a determination to squeeze out the intuition and stress the analytical. “Many of the strategists I have examined,” observed Bruce Kuklick of contributors to postwar American security policy, “were essentially apolitical, in that they lacked what I must call for want of a better phrase elementary political sense. It is almost as if they sought to learn in a seminar room or from cogitation what only instinct, experience and savvy could teach.”8

The quality that often comes with political judgment is the ability to persuade others to follow a particular course. Indeed, for those who are not Napoleons, who cannot expect orders to be accepted without question, shrewd judgment is of little value unless it is coupled with an ability to express its meaning to those who must follow its imperatives. It is at this point that strategy moves from intuition to deliberation, from knowing that a particular course is the right one to finding the arguments to explain why this must be so. So system 2 thinking is needed for those situations that are too complex and unique for System 1. Such circumstances require that alternative arguments be weighed and measured against each other to identify a credible course of action. Thus, for the most part, strategy must be in the realm of System 2, but that may only be in terms of turning what are essentially System 1 judgments into persuasive arguments.

The reason this book has returned so often to questions of language and communication is because strategy is meaningless without them. Not only does strategy need to be put into words so that others can follow, but it works through affecting the behavior of others. Thus it is always about persuasion, whether convincing others to work with you or explaining to adversaries the consequences if they do not. Pericles gained authority for his ability to make a reasoned case in a democratic setting; Machiavelli urged princes to develop compelling arguments; Churchill’s speeches gave the British people a sense of purpose in war. Brute force or economic inducements may play their part, but their impact may be lost without clarity about what must be done to avoid punishment or gain reward. “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company,” observed Hannah Arendt, “where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”9

The greatest power is that which achieves its effects without notice. This comes about when established structures appear settled and uncontentious, part of the natural and generally benign order of things, even to those who might be supposed to be disadvantaged.10 The ability of elites to render essentially sectional interests as a general good so that their satisfaction is taken for granted and put beyond challenge has been a source of intense frustration to radicals. The limited revolutionary zeal of the masses has been explained by grand stories—labeled as formulas, myths, ideologies, paradigms, and eventually narratives—which assumed that since people could not grasp objective reality they must depend on interpretative constructs, and those best placed to influence those constructs could acquire enormous power. The radicals sought to develop strategies promoting alternative, healthier forms of consciousness, contradicting any suggestion that the existing scheme of things must be accepted without question as natural and enduring rather than constructed and contingent. This question of how best to affect the attitudes of others has come to be seen to be relevant to all aspects of strategy and not just efforts to turn the existing order upside down. Partisan politicians have worked to set agendas and frame issues, offering damaging stories about opponents while portraying a party’s own candidates in the best possible light. This “narrative turn” has also been evident in the military and business arenas, reflected in calls for sensitivity to “hearts and minds” in counterinsurgency, corporate lobbyists challenging regulatory restraints, or managers trying to convince employees that they will benefit from drastic organizational changes. Not only are stories instruments of strategy, they also give form to strategy. Reinforced by cognitive theories and the role of interpretative constructs and scripts in organizing attitudes and behavior, narratives have moved to the fore in the contemporary strategic literature in military, politics, and business. In order to come to terms with recent trends in thinking about strategy we need to come to terms with stories.

The Trouble with Stories

In his essay “The Trouble with Stories,” Charles Tilly considered the persistent human tendency to seek explanations in terms of stories about individuals, along with collectives such as churches or states and even abstractions such as classes or regions. These stories would tell of deliberate, conscious, and often successful acts to achieve definite goals. They satisfied their audience, including social scientists, far too easily. All that seemed to be required was a degree of plausibility, recognition of the constraints of time and circumstance, and a match with cultural expectations. Yet, Tilly warned, stories had limited explanatory power. The most significant cause-effect relations tended to be “indirect, incremental, interactive, unintended, collective, or mediated by the nonhuman environment rather than being direct, willed consequences of individual action.” The demand for stories encouraged analysis in terms of actors making deliberate choices among well-defined alternatives, when actual decision-making was likely to be far less calculating and deliberate, more improvised, often quite wobbly. Social scientists had a responsibility to seek something better. Tilly was not optimistic. Brains, he noted, would “store, retrieve and manipulate information about social processes” in terms of standard stories, thereby encouraging accounts of complex events in terms of the “interactions of self-motivated objects.” If this was the case, Tilly at least hoped for superior stories, doing justice to the impersonal and collective forces at work as well as the human, and making the appropriate connections with time, places, actors, and actions outside their purview. Better still, we should tell stories about stories, giving stories context and considering how they were generated.11

Business historians have come to warn of accepting at face value narratives, such as Sloan’s My Life with General Motors, that suggest that challenging decisions were matters of purely rational choice. Whether or not such narratives exaggerate the role of senior managers they leave the impression of inevitability, understating the possibility of different decisions leading to alternative outcomes.12 Daniel Raff advocates recreating the choices of the past, looking at historical events as “sequences of challenges to be addressed rather than as initiatives which have already happened.” This would mean recognizing the alternatives that were available in the past and how actors made sense of them.13 Kahneman has also observed that although good stories “provide a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions,” this encourages a readiness to “interpret behavior as a manifestation of general propensities and personality traits—causes that you can readily match to effects.” As an example he cites analyses of corporate success. The numerous management books full of these stories “consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices.” He suggests that luck is as important a factor if not more so. The result of these biases is that when it comes to “explaining the past and in predicting the future, we focus on the causal role of skill and neglect the role of luck. We are therefore prone to an illusion of control.” He further notes the paradox that it “is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.” This reinforces the tendency to neglect factors about which little is known, thereby encouraging overconfidence.14

These flawed stories of the past shape our predictions of the future. In this he draws attention to the work of Nassim Taleb, who stresses the importance of unexpected and random events (which he calls “black swans”) for which inadequate provision has been made because they are so out of line with past experience. Yet Taleb also acknowledges a contradiction in his method, for although he points to forms of narrative fallacy he also uses stories “to illustrate our gullibility about stories and our preference for the dangerous compression of narratives.” This is because metaphors and stories are “far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read.” As a result: “You need a story to displace a story.”15

We have seen in this book how familiar stories with a strong message turn out on closer examination to be either fabricated or subject to alternative interpretations offering different lessons. David and Goliath is now understood to be about what an underdog might achieve, but it was originally about the importance of belief in God. Odysseus began as a celebration of a shrewd and crafty intelligence, but as he morphed into the Roman Ulysses he came to exemplify treachery and trickery. Plato outdid the sophists at their own game, making his claim for a pure discipline of philosophy by recasting those who came before him as caring more for money than truth. Milton sought to make sense of the Creation by constructing a Machiavellian Satan who many came to find a more compelling character than his worthy God. Clausewitz looked at Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign as flawed strategy; Tolstoy saw it as proof that there could be no such thing as strategy. Liddell Hart collected stories of battle and then gave them his own twist to validate his indirect approach. John Boyd and his acolytes took the idea of the blitzkrieg—as exemplified by the German success in Europe in 1940— stripped it of context by ignoring its failure in the East, and turned it into a model for future warfare. Marx complained about the persistent influence of the French Revolution but could not quite escape from it himself. As his predictions about the development of capitalism turned out to be flawed, his followers contorted themselves to prove that this was still scientific history and so bound to be vindicated. The traditional teaching of business strategy depended on stories known as case histories. The management gurus, from Frederick Taylor to Tom Peters, knew that they could make their points with a good tale that could illustrate their essential points. The very human temptation to seize on some specific incident to make a general point—demonstrated by the uses of anecdotes about Honda—led invariably to overstated conclusions that were far more contingent than their tellers would allow.

“Research suggests that power comes less from knowing the right stories than from knowing how and [how] well to tell them: what to leave out, what to fill in, when to revise and when to challenge, and whom to tell or not to tell.”16 In terms of everyday human interaction, persuasion through storytelling can be an important skill, especially when engaging those with similar backgrounds and interests. When engaging those who might be skeptical or suspicious, with separate frames of reference, they may be of less value. Moreover, narratives deliberately manufactured to achieve some desired effect risk appearing forced and contrived. They suffer from all the problems once associated with propaganda, which lost credibility precisely because of its blatant attempt to influence how others thought and behaved.

Indeed, the current enthusiasm for “strategic narratives” might fade with greater appreciation of their roots in what was once unashamedly and positively called propaganda, before it acquired totalitarian connotations. These narratives have to work within all the previously described constraints. With sufficient ambiguity, the same strategic story might hold a group together or advance a political project but then fall apart as soon as clarity is required, empirical tests present themselves, or contradictory messages emerge. When it comes to “battles of narratives,” what matters is not only their inherent quality but the resources behind them, reflected in the capacity for an organization to propagate its own myths and censor or counter contrary claims. Narratives are neither “fundamentally subversive nor hegemonic.” They can be told effectively—and ineffectually—by authorities and their opponents. They are not precise strategic instruments because they can convey a range of messages, not all of which may be understood, and narrative devices such as metaphors and irony can cause confusion. The meaning of stories can be ambiguous and some interpretations may undercut the storyteller. Audiences may focus on minor features or impose their own experiences on the narrative. Familiar stories which apparently convey one message can be given a mischievous twist by groups promoting an apparently contrary cause.17 We can recall the classicist Francis Cornford’s definition of propaganda: “That branch of the art of lying which consists in very nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies.”18


These ambiguous aspects of narratives explain their limitations as strategic instruments. Are there ways of thinking about them that might help give them more value? We can assume that it is much easier to control for problems of meaning and interpretation when the audience is quite small and already sharing much by way of culture and purposes. Reference was made in the last chapter to the concept of an internalized script as a source of orientation to a new situation. This concept has been influential in the psychology and artificial intelligence communities but less so in the strategic. Strictly speaking, the concept refers to stereotypical situations which set expectations for appropriate behavior. Scripts can be either weak, for example, deciding that somebody fits a certain personality type, or strong, in anticipating a whole sequence of events. In the original concept, scripts were about drawing on stored knowledge that led to almost automatic responses—which might turn out to be wholly inappropriate. Scripts can, however, be taken as starting points for deliberate action and even be developed and internalized by groups as they consider together a developing situation. Studies of scripts have therefore considered how individuals respond to organizational routines, such as appraisals, or to events which they are unlikely to have experienced ever before, such as fires in a public place. This work has demonstrated the hold scripts can have and the difficulty of persuading people who have committed to a particular script to abandon it. Scripts may be a natural way of responding to new situations, but they can also be seriously misleading. Thus, if people need to behave abnormally, they need to know that they are in an abnormal situation.19

The advantages of scripts for our purposes are twofold. First, the concept provides a way of addressing the problem about how individuals enter into new situations, give them meaning, and decide how to behave. Second, it has a natural link with performance and narrative. Indeed, Abelson discussed scripts in terms of being composed of a series of scenes made up of linked vignettes that are as likely to originate in reading, including fiction, as experience.20

One use of the idea in a wider context comes from Avner Offer’s account of the origins of the Great War, in which he describes the importance of “honor” as a motivation and asks why it took precedence over survival. It was not as if the German High Command was confident of victory. They knew that the planned offensive was something of a gamble, even though they could think of no other way to wage the war. In the war counsels of Berlin in 1914, the view was that Germany dared not hold back. It had done so with the last crisis, and if it did so again its reputation would be lost. The only prospect would be an ignominious and decadent decline. The consequences were uncertain, but a fine intention would provide its own vindication. The German decision to go to war—and those equally belligerent decisions it provoked—was, Offer asserts, an “expressive rather than instrumental act.” In this respect war was the outcome of a sequence of insults, a “chain of honorable reactions” which none felt able to ignore. Offer explains the emphasis on honor in deciding on war and then the military mobilization of whole societies on the basis of scripts. The honor script was not “overt” but was influential, sanctioning a “reckless attitude” and creating “a powerful social pressure to subordinate prudential considerations and to conform.” This script, he suggests, was derivative of an even more implicit dueling script, which had its own sequence. When honor was challenged or questioned in some episode, the remedy was violence “in the case of nation-states, preceded by the polite maneuvers and language of diplomacy.” If “satisfaction” was denied, there would be a “loss of reputation, status, [and] honor,” which would lead to “humiliation and shame.” This script proved to be powerful. It “provided a narrative in which decisions could be communicated, a justification and legitimation for sacrifice that everyone could understand and accept.” So what started as an emotion among the few at the top could be transmitted through the culture. So powerful was this script that those in its grip were blinded to alternative scripts based on “other forms of courage and risk taking; to those of timely concession, of conciliation, cooperation, and trust.”21

In this respect, a strategic script in a System 1 sense can be considered a largely internalized foundation for attempts to give situations meaning and suggest appropriate responses. These scripts may be implicit or just taken for granted, as in the assumptions that the logic of war is a battle of annihilation leading to enemy capitulation, that sea power must be about command of the sea, that the best form of counterinsurgency addresses hearts and minds, that appeasement always leads to an impression of weakness, or that an arms race always escalates into war. These are stereotypes that can often serve as substitutes for original thought or consideration of the particularities of situations. While they may be validated if acted upon, they may turn out to be wrong. At a less elevated level, scripts may be about the correct sequence of operations in a military campaign, the effect of state violence on popular movements, forming community organizations, securing a presidential nomination, managing organizational change, identifying the optimum time and place for a new product launch, or making the first move in a hostile takeover.

The point about these scripts is that if not challenged they may result in predictable behavior and miss variations in the context that should demand original responses. As I argued earlier, strategy really kicks in when there is something different and unfamiliar about the situation. System 1 scripts may be a natural starting point, but they may benefit from a System 2 appraisal that considers why the normal script might not work this time. In this respect, following established scripts risks strategic failure.

System 2 scripts should be more deserving of the adjective “strategic.” For dramatists, a compelling narrative is something to be worked on and refined rather than merely a way of dignifying the inchoate mutterings of ordinary folk. Instead of being a subconscious set of internalized scripts, these scripts may be seen as acts of conscious communication. They do not need to take the form of screenplays in which each actor speaks in turn, but they should have a composed quality indicating the expected interaction between the main actors. They may be rooted in the past or draw on well-known events, but they have to take the present as a starting point and project forward. These strategies are stories about the future, starting with imaginative fiction but with an aspiration to nonfiction.

Jerome Bruner’s discussion of narratives also illustrates the possibilities and limitations of strategic scripts. He suggested the following requirements. First, though they may not present reality accurately, they must meet the standard of verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of being true. Second, they will predispose an audience to a particular interpretation of events and an anticipation of what is to come. They do not involve empirical verification or steps in a logical sequence, but they create their own imperatives. “Narrative necessity” is the counterpart of “logical necessity.” They can use devices such as suspense, foreshadowing, and flashbacks, and be allowed more ambiguity and uncertainty than formal analyses. Third, while they cannot be constituted as a formal proof of any general theory, they can be used to demonstrate a principle, uphold a norm, or offer guidance for the future. These, however, must arise naturally out of the narrative and not necessarily be stated explicitly in conclusion. It is often impossible to know where a good story is leading until the destination is reached. The audience must be taken to the required point by the “narrative imperative.” According to Bruner, an “innovative story teller goes beyond the obvious.” To get the audience’s attention, the story must breach the expectations created by an “implicit canonical script” to contain an element of the unusual and unexpected.22

The purpose of such a strategic story is not solely to predict events but to convince others to act in such a way that the story will follow its proposed course. If it fails to convince, the inherent prediction will certainly be wrong. As with other stories, these must relate to the audience’s culture, experience, beliefs, and aspirations. To engage, they must ring true and survive examination in terms of their internal coherence and consistency (“narrative probability”). They must also resonate with the historical and cultural understandings of their intended audience (“narrative fidelity”).23The main challenges for strategic narratives lie in their potentially brutal encounter with reality, which may require early adjustment, and the need to address multiple audiences, which risks incoherence.24 It might be possible to reconcile apparently incompatible demands through a rhetorical trick or to combine optimistic assumptions on top of each other, but such devices can soon be exposed. There needs to be candor and little make-believe.

What about the criticisms of Tilly and Kahneman that our dependence on stories leads us to exaggerate the importance of human agency, to assume that effects flow from the deliberate acts of the central characters in our stories (often ourselves) rather than large impersonal forces or chance events or questions of timing and happenstance that could never be part of the starting narrative? The answer is that ignoring these factors certainly makes for bad history but not necessarily bad strategy. When we seek to understand the present it is unwise to assume that things are the way they are solely because strong actors wished them to be thus, but when we look forward to the future we have little choice but to identify a way forward dependent upon human agency which might lead to a good outcome. It is as well to avoid illusions of control, but in the end all we can do is act as if we can influence events. To do otherwise is to succumb to fatalism.

Moreover, the unexpected and the accidental can be managed if provision is made from the start to accommodate them. A strategic plan, relating available means to desired ends through a series of steps which if followed carefully and in sequence produces the desired outcome, suggests a predictable world, with cause and effect known in advance. One large conclusion of this book is that such plans struggle to survive their encounters with an awkward reality. A script may share with a plan an anticipated sequence of events, but as it moves from System 1 to System 2, from a subconscious assumption to a deliberate composition, it can incorporate the possibility of chance events and anticipate the interaction of a number of players over an extended period of time. This requires an unfinished quality. The script must leave considerable scope for improvisation. There is only one action that can be anticipated with any degree of certainty, and that is the first move of the central player for whom the strategy has been devised. Whether the plot will unfold as intended will then depend on not only the acuity of the starting assumptions but also whether other players follow the script or deviate significantly from it.

Scripts: Strategic and Dramatic

Once strategies are considered as narratives a close relationship with drama becomes evident. David Barry and Michael Elmes consider strategy, “one of the most prominent, influential and costly stories told in organizations.” It carries elements of “theatrical drama, the historical novel, futurist fantasy, and autobiography,” with “parts” prescribed for different characters. “Its traditional emphasis on forecasting aligns it with visionary novels having a prospective, forward-looking focus.”25 If this is the case then there might be guidance for strategists in the methods by which dramatists work out their plots and write their scripts.

A good place to begin is Robert McKee’s guide to the art of storytelling for movies.26 The starting point is exactly the same as with strategy. The story, like the strategy, moves forward with conflict. Scripts fail, he warns, when they are marked by “either a glut of meaningless and absurdly violent conflict, or a vacancy of meaningful and honestly expressed conflict.” This means recognizing that even within an apparently harmonious organization there is always some conflict. There is never enough space, time, or resources to go round, leaving aside the forms of conflict that result from discordant personalities and a clash of egos (which a successful organizational politician will also need to understand). Conflict does not necessarily lead to violence and mayhem. The conflict may be within the main character, which is reflected in the strategist’s need to choose. As McKee observes, the interesting and challenging choices are not those between good and evil but those between irreconcilable goods or two evils. The challenge of choice, however, is to know what can be done to achieve the preferred outcome, so that aiming for one does not lead to the other. This is the role of the plot, so that when “confronted by a dozen branching possibilities” the correct path is chosen. The plot will contain its own internal laws of probability. The choices faced by the protagonists must emerge naturally out of the world as described. The plot represents the dramatist’s “choice of events and their design in time.” The strategist must also stick closely to what McKee calls the “archplot,” in which “motivated actions cause effects that in turn become the causes of yet other effects, thereby interlinking the various levels of conflict in a chain reaction of episodes to the story climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality.”

I n drama, plots provide the structure that holds stories together and gives meaning to particular events. Aristotle in his Poetics described a plot as an “arrangement of incidents” that should have an inner unity. The story should not contain anything of irrelevance and it must maintain its credibility throughout. This required that the key players stay in character. Aristotle insisted that cause and effect should be explicable within the terms of the story rather than as the result of some artificial, external intervention. The “function of the poet” was in relating not what had happened but what could happen, to show what was possible “according to the law of probability or necessity.”27

The features of a good plot are therefore shared between drama and strategy: conflict, convincing characters and credible interactions, sensitivity to the impact of chance, and a whole set of factors that no plan can anticipate or accommodate in advance. In both, the line between fiction and nonfiction can be blurred. A dramatist may attempt to reconstruct real events by showing what might have happened, while the strategist opens with a current reality but must then imagine how it could be changed. In neither case is there value in a wonderful and compelling narrative that falls flat and fails to engage its intended audience. A story that is too clever, convoluted, experimental, or shocking may fail to connect, produce an appalled counterreaction, or convey the wrong set of messages. In strategy as in drama, a poor plot can result from incredible characters, too much disparate activity, too many discordant points of view, events moving too slowly or too fast, confusing links, or obvious gaps.

There are, however, important differences between the dramatist and strategist. These can be illustrated by an example. In 1921, secretary of the interior Albert Fall took bribes from oil executives to hand over leases to drill for oil under the Teapot Dome rock formation in Wyoming. The press picked up the story because of rumblings from those within the oil industry denied the opportunity to bid for the reserves, although one newspaper used evidence to blackmail rather than reveal. Fall refused to answer any questions, and the government tried to prevent progress. Ultimately, a Congressional panel concluded that the leases “were executed under circumstances indicating fraud and corruption.” This was determined through tedious investigations, depending on a keen understanding of institutional processes.28 One anti-corruption fighter in the Senate was Burton Wheeler of Montana, a lawyer who had made his name fighting for workers’ rights and against corruption and had acted as prosecutor for another Congressional investigation into corruption at the Department of Justice. An unsuccessful attempt was made to discredit him through allegations that he had accepted a fee from a client to help secure government oil concessions.29

Wheeler was said to be the model for Jefferson Smith, the hero of Frank Capra’s movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the movie, Smith, the head of the state’s Boy Rangers, is naive and idealistic. He is sent by the boss of the local political machine (James Taylor), to go to Washington as a replacement for a recently deceased Senator in the mistaken belief that he will be easy to manipulate. The state’s other Senator, Joseph Paine—once a good friend of Smith’s father and a fellow idealist—has been corrupted by power. Smith proposes a bill to create a boys’ camp in his home state, but the chosen site is one Taylor has found for a corrupt dam-building scheme. Taylor, therefore, forces a reluctant Paine to denounce Smith as planning to profit from the bill at the expense of the boys he claims to champion. The plan almost works. A disconsolate Smith almost gives up until his previously skeptical aide, Clarissa Saunders, persuades him to take a stand. As Paine is about to call for a vote to expel Smith from the Senate, Smith begins to filibuster, hoping to get the message about corruption to the people of his state. Though Smith stays on his feet, Taylor is able to use strong-arm tactics to prevent the message getting out. Paine prepares the final blow by bringing in to the Senate hundreds of letters and telegrams demanding Smith’s expulsion. Before collapsing exhausted, Smith insists that he will continue fighting “even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody’ll listen to me.” Paine is shocked. He tries to shoot himself and then exclaims that he is the one who should be expelled. He confesses all. Smith is now a hero and his Senate career is assured.

The movie contrasted the manipulative business trusts who put themselves beyond democratic accountability, through their control of party machines and a supine media, with the decent aspirations of ordinary folk. It conveyed distaste for Machiavellian political methods, wiles and ruses, pretense and deception, while applauding those who were straightforward, principled, and brave. It demonstrated how a good man could defeat evil lurking in the body politic. Although Capra was a Republican, the script was written by a communist, Sidney Buchman. Capra had found it expedient to play down Buchman’s role, and he appears to have been happy with the movie as a simple morality tale, with the good rewarded and the bad punished. Buchman believed that his script was a challenge to dictatorship and emphasized “the spirit of vigilance which is necessary if one believes in democracy the refusal to surrender even before small things.”30

Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the movie industry’s Production Code Administration,31 was at first hostile to the Senate’s portrayal as “if not deliberately crooked . . . completely controlled by lobbyists with special interests.” Aware that he needed to avoid the impression of political censorship, Breen accepted it as a “grand yarn” so long as most Senators were shown to be “fine, upstanding, citizens who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation.”32 Nonetheless, when first screened, senators (including Wheeler) and journalists were outraged. State Department officials feared that U.S. institutions were made to look ridiculous. The public—abroad as well as in the United States— was caught up in the brilliance of Capra’s storytelling and accepted his claim that the movie idealized American democracy.33 Ronald Reagan almost modeled himself on Jefferson Smith, even as president quoting the line about fighting for lost causes.34

For Capra’s purposes, Smith appeared as idealistic and a-strategic. His strategic advice came from Saunders, first mischievously and then lovingly. In a key scene, she finds Smith alone at the Lincoln Memorial, bemoaning the discrepancy between the “fancy words . . . carved in stone” and the lies he faced. She urges him not to quit. All the “good in the world” comes from “fools with faith.” In the original screenplay she appeals to “a little fellow called David [who] walked out with only a sling-shot—but he had the truth on his side.”35 In the final version she has a strategy: “A forty foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.” This strategy works for an underdog who must survive the stronger side’s push for a quick victory. Paine, a master of the rulebook, is surprised by the filibuster. Smith knows enough not to yield the floor and so was not caught by Paine’s request for him to do just that. The second part of Saunders’s plan fails. As Smith speaks to encourage people in his state to “kick Mister Taylor’s machine to kingdom come,” Taylor observes: “He won’t get started! I’ll make public opinion out there in five hours. I’ve done it all my life!” He is even able to suppress the brave effort by the Boy Rangers to distribute their own paper. What actually makes the difference is the comparative fragility of the coalitions. That between Taylor and Paine breaks as the senator is reminded of his lost idealism. For his part, Smith is helped by a kindly vice president, who lets Smith get started on his filibuster and offers friendly smiles as he becomes weary.36 The features of a strategy are therefore all present, even if not always explicit. They have to be to give the plot some credibility and to show that Smith was able, to a degree, to shape his own success. Where the drama takes over is in the compression of events, the lack of boring processes (such as the painstaking investigations of the Teapot Dome scandal), and a satisfactory conclusion dependent upon a sudden change of heart coming at the very last moment when it might have made a difference.

The dramatist controls the plot, manipulating the behavior of all parties and introducing elements of chance and coincidence to move the story to a predetermined conclusion. She sets boundaries to reduce the numbers of tangents and loose ends. All the main characters are under her control. She can decide how they meet and their interactions, which can be complicated through misunderstanding at crucial moments and then transformed by freak accidents or serendipitous encounters. She knows when there is going to be a surprising twist, a shocking revelation that presents a character in a completely new light, an accident that interferes with an apparently perfect plan, or an extraordinary opportunity that allows the hero to escape a terrible fate in the nick of time. She can introduce minor characters to make a point with complete confidence that they need never be seen again. She can hint at things to come, knowing that an attentive reader will pick up the clues or appreciate their relevance. By sustaining suspense to the end, she can ensure a thrilling denouement. Audiences expect a proper conclusion, which pulls together the distinct strands of the story, explains puzzles, and brings the suspense to an end. There may be a moral lesson, as evil characters get their comeuppance while the good are rewarded, or else deliberate moral ambiguity, confirming a sense of disappointment and injustice.

The strategist faces quite different challenges. The most important is that the stakes are for real. The dramatist may allow the “baddies” to win as a statement about the human condition; the strategist knows this will have real and possibly dire consequences. The dramatist can ensure that the plot unfolds as intended; the strategist has to cope with the choices of others while remaining relatively ignorant of what they might be. The dramatist can use these choices to reveal the true character of key players; the strategist must make a starting assumption about character when anticipating what choices may be made under intense forms of pressure. The strategist must avoid the standard plot lines of literature shaping expectations. It is unlikely that everything will come together in some sudden, thrilling climax. In drama, the most satisfactory foes appear as truly monstrous, malign, and egocentric. It might be tempting to denounce actual opponents in these terms but it is also dangerous if taken too seriously. An otherwise resolvable conflict might turn into a confrontation between the forces of light and darkness. Caricature depictions of opponents, along with glowing portrayals of friends, add to the risks of being caught by surprise by actual behavior. It must be understood that strategies that depend on others to act out of character, beyond their competence, or against their declared interests and preferences, are gambles. Rather than play out assigned roles that will leave them frustrated, contained, ambushed, or suppressed, they will write their own scripts. The challenge for the strategist—indeed, the essence of strategy—is to force or persuade those who are hostile or unsympathetic to act differently than their current intentions. The risk is always that the conclusions will be messier and less satisfactory than anticipated. There may not even be a proper conclusion. The plot may just peter out. The original story line may lead nowhere and be overtaken by a different story.

Both the dramatist and strategist must think about their audiences, but the problem of multiple audiences is more challenging for the strategist. If those who need to follow the plot are confused, they will be unable to play their parts. At the same time there may be others who are best kept in the dark, following false trails and deliberately ambiguous signals. The dramatist can reduce the demands on her audience. There is no need to show results being eked out through hard grind and close attention to detail over an expanded period. She also has the option of a thrilling climax. Here there can be complete closure, with absolute and irreversible change achieved. The strategist may face similar temptations: anxiety to bring matters to a swift conclusion, impatience at the thought of wearing opponents down over time or engaging potential allies in extended negotiations. A determination to seek a quick and decisive result is a frequent cause of failure. Unlike the dramatist, the strategist cannot rely on last-minute escapes from certain doom, in which chance, a sharp eye, a sudden revelation, or a uniquely cool head makes all the difference. The challenge is to identify moves that will require other players to follow the script out of the logic of the developing situation. The opening bid in negotiations, a feint on a battlefield, and a bellicose statement at a time of crisis may all assume a likely response by the other side. If that is not forthcoming, the improvisation will start early.

The strategist has to accept that even when there is an obvious climax (a battle or an election), the story line will still be open-ended—what McKee calls a “miniplot”—leaving a number of issues to be resolved later. Even when the desired endpoint is reached, it is not really the end. The enemy may have surrendered, the election won, the target company taken over, the revolutionary opportunity seized, but that just means that there is now an occupied country to run, a new government to be formed, a whole new revolutionary order to be established, or distinctive sets of corporate activity to be merged. Here the dramatist can leave the next stage to the reader’s imagination or pick up the story again after the passage of time, perhaps even with many new characters. Strategists have no such luxury. The transition is immediate and may well be conditional on how the original endpoint was reached. This takes us back to the observation that much strategy is about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination. Rather than think of strategy as a three-act play, it is better to think of it as a soap opera with a continuing cast of characters and plot lines that unfold over a series of episodes. Each of these episodes will be self-contained and set up the subsequent episode. Unlike a play with a definite ending, there is no need for a soap opera to ever reach a conclusion, even though the central characters and their circumstances change.

The dramatist can use coincidences to move the plot along, to ensure that the main protagonist faces the hard choices at the right time. The strategist knows that there will be events which were never part of the plot and which disrupt its logic but cannot be sure when, where, and how. Boundaries will be hard to maintain, and apparently irrelevant issues will intrude and complicate matters. The plot must therefore build in a certain freedom of action. The earlier definitive choices must be made, the greater the commitment to a particular course and the harder the adjustment when the actions of others or chance events deflect the protagonist from this course. The strategist cannot rely on the device of the deus ex machina, by which classical plays used divine intervention to sort out desperate situations at the last moment. Writers can allow a coincidence to turn an ending, acknowledges McKee, but this is the “writer’s greatest sin” for it negates the value of the plot and allows the central characters to duck responsibility for their own actions. Aristotle also deplored the regular recourse to this device.

In ancient Greece, the most important distinction in plots was between comedy and tragedy. This was not a distinction between happy/sad or funny/ miserable but between alternative ways of resolving conflicts.37 It may be that the conflict is not between opposing characters but between individuals and society. Comedy ends with a satisfactory resolution and the main characters looking forward positively to the future; tragedy ends with a negative prospect—especially for the main character, who is probably largely responsible for his own misfortune—even if society as a whole is restored to some sort of equilibrium. When a new and positive relationship has been forged between society and the main character that is comedy; when the main character’s attempt to change the status quo has been defeated that is tragedy. The dramatist knows from the start whether she is writing comedy or a tragedy: the strategist aims for comedy but risks tragedy.

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