Knowing History: A Strength or Weakness of Strategic Thinkers?

Historical ThinkingOne of the most important things we can do to advance strategic thinking is identifying and removing misconceptions. In this article, I want to challenge popular advice: being well read in history develops strategic thinking. I’m defining “well read” as having read and account of the characters and events of history. A well read person can explain what happened and why that specific event happened. Too many people have a superficial knowledge of facts. This results in a mindset, explained by historian Robert Crowley(1):

We are left with the impression that history is inevitable, that what happened could not have happened any other way, and that drama and contingency have no place in the general scheme of human existence.

Superficial knowledge of events and characters is fine for entertainment, but dangerous if we need to problem solve and create policy. Deeper understanding of the past is needed if we are to make decisions about the future.

Here is my proposition:

Many people enjoy a good historical narrative, but knowing the historical facts does not translate into strategic thinking talent. This is because most histories are written as coherent stories of conflict and competition. The resolution is frequently narrated so that the outcome seems inevitable. Further, most accounts of history severely discount the role of chance. A frequent reader of history comes to accept personal character as vitally important, and overlook chance. This historical-thinking mindset hinders their ability to make futures-ready decisions.

An Example

I know several people (all men) who enjoy reading history books about great historical leaders, wars, and movements. They describe it as an enjoyable hobby. These histories provide coherent, consistent, logical narratives.

These same people are among the first to criticize leaders of business and government.

I’ll illustrate this with Terry who I’ve known well for 20 years. Terry is an avid history reader and is intelligent. When it comes to contemporary affairs of business or politics, though, Terry will frequently criticize with comments like, “they have no commonsense” or “they’re idiots and don’t know what they’re doing!” In the spirit of having a good conversation, I try to get Terry to see if there is room for another point of view. I point out that situation is complex. I suggest that maybe the policy might have benefits that will become more obvious in the future. Usually, my words have little impact. Terry has determined all those business leaders and politicians (it doesn’t matter what political party) are incompetent and it’s settled.

Now, let me add this element to my example: Terry once ran a successful business. Unfortunately, he made some decisions that didn’t pay off. His bank and creditors forced him into personal bankruptcy. Terry’s decisions could also be characterized as lacking commonsense and lacking smarts. Although it ironic that Terry freely criticizes others for their strategic deficiencies but he doesn’t see it in himself. (Of course, it’s no surprise the find stories that protect their egos.)

Little Emphasis on the Role of Chance

Like many books on strategy, histories are written with the benefit of hindsight. The more entertaining story is one of leadership, conflict and decisions. An entertaining story is a coherent story. Readers are drawn towards those stories that “feel right,” and which engage the natural optimism that “it will all work out.”

The role of luck is too-often treated as context. Competent strategic thinking takes us in more nuanced direction. In particular, a strategic thinker recognizes the value of Daniel Kahneman’s note on the importance of luck: (2)

Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.

Forecasting & Plans: Is the Future Inevitable?

When you believe that “history is inevitable,” you’re also more likely to rely on trend forecasting. If there was a 10% change in a variable over the past year, you’re likely to assume that this same 10% will apply to the coming year. Your mindset is anchored to a number, and the status quo is often the result.

A similar idea characterizes planning. People create plans as if they will unfold in an inevitable way. There is little consideration for the role of chance.

Historical Thinking and Strategic Thinking

Historical thinking involves reading the works of other historians. As an element of critical thinking, you critique the choice of evidence, the framing of that evidence, the tone and word choice, and the resulting conclusions. Instead of the inevitable “march of history,” historical thinkers look for alternative “second stories” that might equally explain the past.

Strategic thinking is not oriented towards understanding the past, but rather towards making futures-ready decisions that take into account the uncertain shapes of the future and the implications of that future. Here I paraphrase historian David J Staley: (3)

Strategic thinkers understand that surprise, contingency, and deviation from trend lines is the rule and not the exception. Context matters. Strategic thinkers explore alternative possibilities of what might be, rather than definitive predictions of the future.

A good historical analysis, like good strategy, probes into deeper layers.

Do you agree that knowing history does not mean you are a historical thinker? Do you agree that a superficial knowledge of history is a detriment to strategic thinking? What are the strongest and weakest parts of my argument?

~~ ~~

  1. From the introduction to What If? 2: Emininent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. 2001. Berkely Books.
  2. Daniel Kanneman. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Girious ebook
  3. A History of the Future. David J. Staley. December, 2002. History and Theory.
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3 thoughts on “Knowing History: A Strength or Weakness of Strategic Thinkers?

  1. Great article Greg. Very insightful. Couldn’t agree more. The role of chance in history indicates that the role of chance in future events should also be considered. In other words, while the future is not inevitable, a future is inevitable. As a result of complex interactions, the future is thus emergent, but there is also a janusian side to chance – will. © Tim Williamson 3 July 2015

  2. Greg, I would offer this as part of the discussion. Understanding history, analyzing why events happened, how they happened, and who are the beneficiaries of the events will offer insight into future situations where strategy and planning take place with a solid reference base.
    Without understanding the past, planning the future is hindered.

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