Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Rumelt on strategy (IV): First, you must learn to define the problem accurately

I think Rumelt’s book on strategy may be better at teaching people how to critique a strategy than how to devise one. But that is still a significant act. Rumelt emphasizes the need to soberly confront problems. "A good strategy defines a critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I think Rumelt's book on strategy may be better at teaching people how to critique a strategy than how to devise one. But that is still a significant act.

Rumelt emphasizes the need to soberly confront problems. "A good strategy defines a critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and action."

Also, he warns, "When a leader defines the 'problem' as underperformance, it sets the stage for bad strategy. Underperformance is a result. The true challenges are the reasons for the underperformance."

I think Rumelt’s book on strategy may be better at teaching people how to critique a strategy than how to devise one. But that is still a significant act.

Rumelt emphasizes the need to soberly confront problems. "A good strategy defines a critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and action."

Also, he warns, "When a leader defines the ‘problem’ as underperformance, it sets the stage for bad strategy. Underperformance is a result. The true challenges are the reasons for the underperformance."

The conclusion of his best chapter, "Bad Strategy," reminded me of the many hours I have spent reading official government documents and war plans: "Bad strategy is vacuous and superficial, has internal contradictions, and doesn’t define or address the problem. Bad strategy generates a feeling of dull annoyance when you have to listen to it or read it." That last sentence brought home to me many hours of reading Pentagon documents and transcripts.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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