Napoleon’s Glance

Strategically it sometimes pays to step back from daily routine and read or experience something different… but not necessarily too different – the busman’s holiday they call it – as when you work for a charity, gaining pleasure and learning from doing more of what you do at work. Reading for pleasure, I stumbled on a book by William Duggan, associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, an expert on strategic thinking and author of three books in the field – The Art of What Works (2001), Napoleon’s Glance (2004)Napoleon's Glance and Strategic Intuition (2007). The gist: Napoleon and other amazing leaders followed   a route to highly effective strategy that is very, very different from what is normally thought of as strategic planning or strategic thinking.

The principles apply directly to HR strategy. Oddly, just recently, one of the many HR/Learning & Development blogs out there published “Four tips for Effective Leadership,” namely: Be counterintuitive, live comfortably in gray areas, learn by doing and exercise soft skills – exactly what Duggan points to with his great strategists. Strategy isn’t arrived at by ‘planning’ in the sense of laying out exact steps and stages with time lines and benchmarks. Napoleon and the others ‘put their teams in motion,’ ‘looked for small battles they could win decisively,’ ‘stuck to the course with firm resolution,’ and learned to evolve strategies as they went rather than work them out in detail beforehand.

Reading these, I realized that, yes, most successes I ran into along the way evolved ‘in the midst of action’ (a phrase I also recognized from a Zen master talking about finding your way calmly ‘in the midst of action’). Does this apply to HR? My former company got into elearning early and heavily, with great results, because we were asked to look at ‘expert systems’ that the CEO saw at a conference (a different computer technology) and we jumped to use the budget and just get going, without being in the least sure where we were headed, but seeing some possibilities in using technical systems to leverage more people learning more things.

If we’d waited for our IT process that called for developing a technical plan in detail, with projected costs three to five years out, we’d never have gotten off the ground. Yet planning is valuable. In the words of Eisenhower, the top allied General of WWII, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” The difference, in other words, is active versus passive. Get going, planning as you go, through the unexpected twists and uncertainties – don’t wait for “a plan” designed to resolve something you think may happen – it won’t.