An Objective is Not a Strategy

Sometimes I just can’t resist writing a rant. I should know better. I blame my conditioning.

thanks to Indrajit for the link to Stephen’s chart

One of the saddest signs of the west’s intellectual and cultural decline over the past half-century, I think, has been the obvious drop in critical thinking skills, especially among our so-called “leaders”. Part of this is probably due to the decline in the quality of our educational systems. And as we now live in a world where media purport to do our thinking for us and tell us what we should believe, instead of actually giving us information that allows us to think for ourselves, so another contributor to our cognitive decline is a simple lack of practice.

One of the manifestations of this decline is an inability to understand what strategy is. Strategy has always been, since we first emerged from the primordial soup and began to use our brains, the specific means by which we achieve our goals and objectives.

So, if we have a squirrel’s brain (not too hard to imagine if you look at our current crop of “leaders”), you learn, mostly by watching other squirrels, how to defeat the squirrel baffle of the bird feeder. And you learn, mostly by trial and error, how to hide the food you find so that you can find it again later and so that other animals cannot.

One of the key elements of a strategy is deciding what you will not do to try to achieve your goals. The squirrel understands that repeatedly, unsuccessfully, leaping up the bird feeder base and trying to crawl around the baffle does not work. But if you look at the political and military activities of most western governments, it becomes quite clear that this element of strategy — not repeating activities that have never worked and fail disastrously every time — seems to entirely elude their thinking processes.

Central to this failure, I think, is our dim-witted leaders’ inability to distinguish an objective from a strategy. In fact, these “leaders” frequently use the two terms interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing. You even get mangled expressions like “strategic objectives”, which is a non-sequitur.

So we have leaders who assert that their strategy is “to defeat terrorism (or defeat fill-in-the-blank currently designated enemy)”. This is an objective. It is not a strategy. It does not say, step-by-step, how they plan to achieve this objective, or what they are going to stop doing in order to reassign the needed resources, time and money necessary to achieve it.

There is, apparently, a simple reason for their confusion between objectives and strategies. It is this: They have no strategy. They are so muddleheaded and infantile in their ideologically-clouded thinking that they believe that, somehow magically, stating an objective is all that is needed, and everyone will know precisely what to do and how to do it, and then do it. And achieve the objective.

We’ve all seen how well this has worked. The brain-dead group-thinkers in the “leader’s” entourage will generally decide the first step in this (non-)strategy is to spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money. So money is “allocated” (see an example of that in the chart above) to “achieve the stated objectives”. In other words, they write cheques — to defence contractors, foreign governments, the CIA, oligarchs, mercenaries, consultants, bureaucracies and other people and groups over whom they have neither control nor oversight — since oversight would mean employing regulators to do real jobs, and that would be very unpopular with taxpayers of all stripes.

That is their “strategy”. Write cheques and hope the recipients know what to do with the money and that they share the stated “objectives” of the government (rather than just pocketing the money and using it to their own ends).

Unfortunately, the corporate czars and military leaders and foreign governments and CIA etc who receive this largesse are just as clueless about the whole process of strategy as the western governments writing the cheques. The endless and unmitigated litany of disasters of western foreign intervention in political, economic, social and military affairs of foreign nations over the last 50 years is evidence of this.

There is no strategy, only objectives. Assign someone, tell them the objective, give them resources, let them figure out the strategy. Reward them if they accidentally happen to achieve the objective. If they fail, since there is no strategy, no Plan B, just console them and hope that they learned from their failure and that the next time will be less of a disaster. Or, even better, find some third party (ideally some competitor who can be branded evil and/or insane, though “bad luck” or “the economy” or even “the weather” will also serve in a pinch) to blame for the defeat, call a carefully-rehearsed press conference to portray the debacle as a success, declare victory and close the books on the matter. Mission accomplished! (No, don’t get me started on “missions” and “mission statements”!)

The same thoughtless thinking pervades, in my experience, in corporate boardrooms, especially in larger corporations. Their “leaders” likewise don’t develop or refine strategies, they set objectives (often called “stretch targets”) for subordinates. This is a task that could easily be done by AI, and probably much better. Meanwhile when innovators arise and render the company’s product obsolete, or the product or service becomes unpopular (usually for good reasons), the “leaders” can’t be faulted (“our employees failed to achieve our targets”) so they continue to get their million dollar bonuses, and tell their subordinates to cut staff and costs.

The same is becoming true in almost every sphere of human endeavour. Look at the climate conferences, packed with earnest delegates. Again and again they set targets. The targets are ill-defined, largely unmeasurable, and mostly ludicrous at the outset. Only by cooking the books are they ever achieved (eg by offshoring your manufacturing and not counting the ‘climate cost’ of imports in your domestic emissions calculations). And there is no strategy for achieving them, and so no one to hold accountable when, inevitably, they are not achieved.

There is, however, one thing that western “leaders” are actually quite competent at doing, including the development of strategy for doing it. And that is propaganda.

We have decades of experience (in politics, in economics, in advertising and marketing and PR and “image management”) successfully convincing citizens that what we do and produce, and how we live, are unparalleled, the best in the world, and unprecedented in history — worth every penny. Now that we have outsourced everything to China (to achieve the “strategic objective” of reducing costs, apparently), propaganda is now substantially the principal “product” we produce in the west.

Our skill at doing this is now so well-honed that we can convince our citizens of pretty much anything. You know, like the fact that the writing of cheques in the amounts shown in the chart above is a “sound investment in protecting our democracy and freedom”.

The strategies for doing so are quite brilliant. They include, for example, enabling the mainstream media to shrink to a tight oligopoly and then bribing them to dutifully stenograph government press releases as “news”, in return for “exclusive scoops” from government and CIA insiders. They include hammering on racist and xenophobic tropes over and over, using fraudulent “evidence”, to convince the vast majority of western citizens that China is a serious threat to world order and democracy, though nothing substantive has changed since 20 years ago, when a vast majority of western citizens viewed China “favourably”. Now that’s a successful strategy.

It is an indication of the sorry state of our societies and economies that lies are the main commodity we now produce, and that a host of skilful, targeted, practiced lying techniques are our most successful strategies in most of what we do. Most of the cost of everything from breakfast cereals to decongestants is the cost of convincing you they’re worth buying.

Doing things well requires competence. When you no longer have that, you have to learn to lie skilfully and repeatedly. And to lie low when the truth comes out. But you’ll probably be lucky, and people will have forgotten what it was all about by then. (“Nord Stream? What was that about again?”) And then you can take the revolving door back into power, and start your spiel all over again, with a new, valiant-sounding objective.

Just don’t let them force you to talk about strategy.

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