Strategy subsumes culture

So writes Venkatesh Rao, author of Tempo, in a great new post on his Tempo Blog.

One tidbit to get you hooked: He joins John Boyd into a trio including Mahan and Clausewitz. At first, this may seem like strange bedfellows, but Boyd did cite Clausewitz often in Patterns of  Conflict, second only to Sun Tzu.

I’m somewhat hampered in commenting on Venkatesh’s post because it’s difficult to know what “culture” means in Boyd’s scheme of things. Other than in phrases like “cultural heritage” and “respect our culture,” Boyd doesn’t use the term.

On the other hand, he did talk about qualities that organizations need in order to be successful. In addition to the four German words from Certain to Win plus Behendigkeit (agility) there’s IOHAI from chart 144 of Patterns of Conflict. And “common implicit orientation” / “common outlook” from Patterns and Organic Design.

These qualities don’t just come from anywhere. So one might argue that any demarcation between culture and strategy is somewhat arbitrary. In other words, the duty of a commander is not only to create brilliant strategies:

 In the Clausewitz-Mahan-Boyd tradition, strategy is about human insight operating on chaotic shared mental models, seeking special, unfair advantages to exploit. The resources you have available, and the strengths and weaknesses of those resources (people and culture included), naturally get accommodated in this model. (Rao)

But also to create the platform that makes them possible.

Anyway, read the post and see what you think.

2 thoughts on “Strategy subsumes culture

  1. many of the characteristics cited for culture are things needed for tactical activities … so the discussion might be reframed as tactical vis-a-vis strategic.

    then from “Strategic Intuition”


    Jomini’s three steps of strategic planning are completely different from von Clausewitz’s four steps of strategic intuition. Yet both authors claim to derive their steps from Napoleon. Can they both be right? We can boil the problem down to a battle between two words: objective and decisive. For Jomini, you win because you have greater force than your enemy at the objective point. For von Clausewitz, you win because you have greater force at the decisive point.

    … snip …

    and loc767-69:

    On the military side the coup d’oeil of von Clausewitz came full circle in 2005, when the U.S. Army commissioned a study on how strategic intuition applies to their current procedures. Sure enough, the study found that Jomini’s, not von Clausewitz’s, steps still dominate the army’s formal methods of strategy to this day. Yet in practice, officers in the field tend to apply von Clausewitz’s steps.

    … snip …

    a little more in linkedin Boyd group (really long-winded) discussion

  2. Boyd would refer to culture during his “Organic Design for Command and Control” briefing. He would talk about how the US Army needing to deploy huge numbers with little or no experience at the start of WW2 created a rigid top-down command&control infrastructure (culture) to leverage the few available skills. He would then contrast that with “Organic Design for Command and Control”. He would include a comment that this was starting to have adverse effect on American corporate culture as former young US army officers started to climb the corporate executive ladder and create a similar kind of infrastructure (assuming only the people at the very top knew what they were doing and the people at the bottom had little or no skills and experience).

    This has been used more recently to explain reports that the ratio of top executive compensation to worker compensation exploded to 400:1 after having been 20:1 for a long time and 10:1 in most of the rest of the world.

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