[image from the 1968 movie Odyssey, when Ulysses asks his companions to tie him to the mast as they navigate by the area where the sirens beckoned. Circe the sorceress had predicted he would give in. Scene shot in Monte Argentario, Cala della Cacciarella]
It's not enough to do, to practice becoming better at strategy or strategizing, we need to learn to think better. Smart thinking is not an innate quality but rather a skill we can cultivate, and is not the same as intelligence, however we define it. We can develop better thinking habits, higher quality knowledge and tools, and find ways to apply it when we need it.
Practice requires our active engagement with the natural, human, and technological world around us. Practice helps us become more observant of what's going on in the world around us, we learn to use more than one method to understand it and gather feedback so we can make better decisions and act with greater confidence.
Great strategists across the ages made practicing an important part of their learning. Here are some of their stories.
Ulysses was called the Great Strategist. He was a great fighter during the Trojan War, but the thing he was known most for was his masterful plan to build the Trojan horse, which ultimately allowed the Greeks to defeat the Trojans.
After ten years adrift at sea with his crew, Ulysses found the way home. He then had to defeat the many suitors who were after his wife, Penelope, through both the use of his cunning wit and his warrior ability. We can safely say he got things done, but knowing the right things was half the battle.
Homer tells the story in the Odyssey, which he wrote at a time of collapse of the Gilded Age of Greece, looking back at a time of glory, maybe to encourage his people transmit the energy he put in his prose onto their minds. The message comes across, even if translating ancient Greek is a game of compromise.
Strategy however is a game of choices.
Niccolò Machiavelli was the chief diplomat of the Florentine Republic, which had overthrown the Medici family earlier, and was, in turn, overthrown by them. He wrote The Prince to impress Lorenzo de Medico, and likely to get back into the graces of the Medici family after his being removed from his post. The issue was trust.
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are” may give us a sense of his state of mind. What he says about the intellect itself is useful to the conversation about developing a thinking practice:
Because there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.
Machiavelli comprehended a lot about war and developed the philosophy of limited warfare — that is, when diplomacy fails, war is an extension of politics. His thoughts about the art of war likely influenced his thinking about how to govern, “Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.”
Due to his role in diplomatic circles, Machiavelli was both strategic and pragmatic in his approach. He was a realist during a difficult time in his career and life. Dante Alighieri took a very different approach from his exile, writing the Comedy with a touch of the Divine in it.
Understanding how these great strategists thought is one of the many reasons why it's a good idea to read the classics. As Italo Calvino says, “Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite.”
We associate the word strategy with political and military contexts.
Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca, Belisarius, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Qin Shi Huang, Frederick the Great, Friedrich von Clausewitz, Admiral Nelson, Duke of Wellington, Elisabeth I of England, and many more throughout history have made contributions to military and political strategy.
Miyamoto Musashi was an expert Japanese swordsman and rōnin. He became renowned through stories of his excellent and unique double-bladed swordsmanship and undefeated record in his 60 duels. In The Book of Five Rings, he describes different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life, as described by Buddhism, Shinto, and other Eastern religions.
Many of us are familiar with Sun Tzu, and The Art of War. They say people like Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, was able to take control using the strategies in the art of war. But few of us know another Chinese strategist worth mentioning.
Zhuge Liang was a chancellor and regent of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. He was a master tactician, scholar, inventor, and military strategist. He rose to prominence under Lliu Bei, who was head of one of the states warring for control of China during the Three Kingdom period.
Zhuge Liang was so smart and good, that Liu Bei traveled to Liang's remote home for strategic advice. After his state won, Zhuge Liang became a governor and a master statesman. He wrote the influential Thirty-Six Stratagems. Supposedly, his mastery of infantry and cavalry formation tactics, based on the Taoist classic I Ching, were unrivaled.
Reflection was part of Zhuge Liang's writing — from his unwavering loyalty to the state of Shu to his humbleness and frugality in pursuit of a meaningful life.
Strategy helps us in business as it does in everyday life.
Michael E. Porter and Henry Mintzberg have done great work to develop strategic theories for business. Porter wrote Competitive Strategies, where he talks about the importance of strategy and introduced the concept of generic strategies. Mintzberg wrote The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning where he argues that we must reconceive the process by which strategies are created, by emphasizing informal learning and personal vision.
Mintzverg also devoted substantial thinking to the new role for planning, not inside the strategy-making process, but in support of it, providing some of its inputs and sometimes programming its outputs as well as encouraging strategic thinking in general.
The difference between strategy and operational effectiveness draws out the importance of planning.
Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad have expanded the language of strategy. Competing for the Future is a little dated, but still useful to understand the core principles of working on a competitive strategy. What makes a good book on strategy for business is a view of a broad range of industries and organizations and insights that span a broad range of situations.
Jeff Bezos, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffett each created hundreds of billions in shareholder value for their respective companies, but they all focused on application of strategic principles to create value for one client, theirs.
However these CEOs have one thing in common with many of the strategists that preceded them, and that is making learning a habit and putting in the work to practice thinking while doing over the years.
How to practice thinking
We need practice to improve our thinking, just like improvement with soccer, golf, dance, Pilates, yoga, meditation, or playing the piano. It's unlikely to happen if we don't commit to learning. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we don’t do the work required for improvement.
A number of strategies can help us. Here's a list of ideas:
* Recycle time we otherwise waste on unproductive activities to reflect on our day and state of mind — we can make this more intentional by keeping a book on us for when we stand in line, rare as it might be, or wait for something else to start.
* Tackle one problem per day — no book, no problem. We can flex our mind by focusing it on one problem throughout the day as we have space in our schedule. Do we need more information? Out comes the notebook to take a note. It's easier to solve problems when by thinking small, looking at small parts of it.
* Internalize intellectual standards — when reading, for example, we can practice thinking by using one of the intellectual standards at a time. Each week we can pick one among clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, applied logic, significance, and apply it to what we're thinking as we read. Could we explain to someone else? Learning by thinking is a way to reason to oneself.
* Keep a learning journal — this is a notebook where we describe a situation, our response in detail, the analysis of what we have written, and assessment of the implications to our analysis. What would be do differently?
* Practice character traits — things like perseverance, autonomy, empathy, courage, humility, curiosity, consistency, and so on. This is a different level than intellectual standards, we can take a spin on the one we select for a month by becoming more aware of the characteristics associated with it and whether we display them.
* Manage the ego — we all think we're at the center of the universe, it's a built-in human bias. When we shift the center from us to a desirable trait or an issue, for example, we include more data points in our observation. It's helpful to think rationally or how a rational person would act in similar circumstances. For some help see what rational optimist Matt Ridley is reading.
* Reframe how we see things — the meaning we give situations sets us up to how we judge what happens in them. When we bring an attitude of curiosity and leave assumptions behind, we can see things we missed by letting others or pre-existing notions define them rather than experiencing alone.
* Investigate emotions — like Sherlock Holmes, we go behind the scene to figure out what is really going on. What's bothering us? Why do we feel a certain way?
We can weave several of these strategies together to practice and develop our thinking skills. Self-awareness is a great tool to help us manage our selves, and every so often ask others for help, just like Ulysses did with his companions to resist the sirens' song.