The General and the Specific

John Lewis Gaddis: On Grand Strategy

I’ve been alternating between reading some fairly specialist books on wargaming and futures and more general books on strategy, competition and decision-making. The latter category frequently offers broader context and insights. The most recent example of this is John Lewis Gaddis’s On Grand Strategy, a book on the history of states, warfare and diplomacy:

“A gap has opened between the study of history and the construction of theory, both of which are needed if ends are to be aligned with means. Historians, knowing that their field rewards specialized research, tend to avoid the generalizations upon which theories depend: they thereby deny complexity the simplicities that guide us through it. Theorists, keen to be seen as social “scientists,” seek “reproducibility” in results: that replaces complexity with simplicity in the pursuit of predictability. Both communities neglect relationships between the general and the particular… that nurture strategic thinking.”

This validated my mix of general and specific reading, but it also struck me that there is an interesting parallel with business strategy. Line managers in business, like historians, rely on specialist knowledge of their function and industry. Strategy frameworks, on the other hand, do not typically address the specificities of particular domains and industries: the art of a popular strategy framework is often in reducing highly complex problems to a neat, generally applicable model or two-by-two matrix. Gaddis’s book was a salutary reminder of the link between the two, and very much recommended in its own right.

Written on June 5, 2019