General and Specific

I’ve been alternating between reading some fairly specialist books on scenario planning, wargaming and futures and more general titles on strategy, competition and decision-making. The former category is great for detail; the latter frequently offers broader context and insights.

The most recent example is this quote from 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.”

John Lewis Gaddis

Besides providing some validation for my mix of general and specific reading, it also struck me that there is an interesting parallel with the relationship between operations and strategy. Line managers in business, like historians, rely on specialist knowledge of their function and industry: a common complaint is that strategic analysis is reductive. Strategy frameworks, on the other hand, may not address every specificity of particular domains and industries: the art of popular strategy frameworks is often in reducing highly complex problems to a neat, generally applicable model or two-by-two matrix. Both perspectives have value. Gaddis’s book was a salutary reminder of the link between the two, and very much recommended in its own right.

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