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Approaching strategy on a case-by-case basis

Financial Times

If a neoconservative, as Irving Kristol put it, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, James Jasper is simply a sociologist who has been mugged.

“I had only lived in New York a week when I was mugged -- in Times Square no less, in the middle of the day, with crowds of people all around,” reads his opening sentence.

Although most other mugging victims might take the incident as proof that we live in a malign and unjust universe, Jasper uses his experience to draw some interesting conclusions about the nature of strategic action.

“Often, by the time you realize someone has begun to interact with you in a strategic fashion, it is too late to do much about it,” he writes. “Sometimes, you have already lost.”

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He may have been accosted at noon, but Jasper understands what dawn raids are all about.

The anecdote is a good example of this author’s original and distinctive take on the question of strategy. He is bravely sticking a sociologist’s oar into waters traditionally occupied by business-school professors, consultants and game-theory devotees.

He contends that understanding the social and cultural context in which you are operating is vital if you are to “get your way” and achieve a strategic goal.

And he makes the sensible point that although chief executives may like (or feel obliged) to make grand, ambitious pronouncements about where an organization is heading, in fact the company’s fate will be down to choices and decisions made by a series of individuals who are beyond the control of any manager.

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“Organizations can have formally stated goals, but not motivations,” he writes. “And they cannot have satisfactions -- only individuals can. This is important for understanding the purposes of strategic action: We must always be wary when we speak of compound players, remembering that they always comprise simple players with their own motivations, able to defect from stated group goals.”

Strategic dilemmas, as Jasper sees them, have some common characteristics. They apply to a specific terrain or setting, which we would do well to understand.

Action is usually required because of some kind of emerging threat, or because it suits us to threaten others. But we should be careful not to overdo the menace.

Citing Bobby Kennedy’s account of the Cuban missile crisis, Jasper reminds us that President Kennedy allowed Khrushchev more time to consider a way out of the deadlock. “Pushing adversaries into tight corners is the usual goal of strategic action, but in this case the nuclear corner was simply not a desirable one for anybody,” he writes.

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Strategic action implies a goal or goals. But here too there are hazards for the unwary. “The more precisely defined your goals, the more constrained the means you can use to pursue them,” Jasper says.

We must be flexible about our goals, reacting like hunter-gatherers to changed circumstances, he says. But “with goals and means both shifting, a kind of emptiness may appear in much strategic action -- what I call the vacant core -- as though most strategic models left us nothing in particular to be strategic about.”

Then there is the question of the personal skills and attributes we deploy to win over others and get our way: intelligence and charm.

Intelligence can be risky in the corporate environment, Jasper believes, and he cites as evidence a supporting line from fellow sociologist Robert Jackall: “One of the most damaging things that can be said about a manager is that he is brilliant. This almost invariably signals a judgment that the person has publicly asserted his intelligence and is perceived as a threat to others.”

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Charm may be a useful weapon, in moderation. Blatant strategic plotters may lose out to more charming rivals. But it is a tough balancing act: “In the short term, coercion often works,” Jasper acknowledges.

The book has no schematics, or handy hints on what to do about China or India. But it is a refreshing, alternative look at the human dilemmas at the heart of strategic decision making.

Jasper concludes with a characteristically modest but constructive suggestion.

“When grappling with the many dilemmas I have outlined, you will make better choices if you are aware that you are making choices than if you are simply following custom or (as a recent book recommends) intuition,” he writes, in a clear dig at Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.”

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“You can think about the hidden as well as the obvious costs and risks, and you can work to deal with them as soon as possible.... We must,” he says, “give the situation its due.”

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Stefan Stern is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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Know the terrain

* Getting Your Way: Strategic Dilemmas in the Real World

* By James M. Jasper

* University of Chicago Press, $28, 224 pages

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Source: Publisher


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