Scratch the Intro History Courses!

(And the Strategic Plan?)

I love history. I love reading history. I love visiting history. I love watching documentaries. If life were a tad longer, I’d seriously consider going to school to get an advanced history degree. (Hmmm … maybe I will.)

I love history so much that I want to can 98% of history courses as they are taught in high school—maybe even a bunch of the entry-level collegiate stuff, too.

Introductory “history class” today may not continue to spread the rumor about G Washington and that dreadful cherry tree, but it is invariably presented, in early years, as a linear affair with a clearly discernable narrative-plot. (As we Americans know all too well today, Middle Eastern history is not exactly linear!)

I was sooooo lucky. Mr Chapin taught me and my mates history in the 10th grade (age 15 give or take). He audaciously assigned a controversial, adult history text: Charles Beard’s remarkable An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Mr. Beard explained in excruciating detail, to huzzahs and hoots from his peers, the relationship of clause after clause of our Sacred Document to the narrow self-interests of the landowning tribe who met in Philadelphia to put together a useful governing doctrine to keep the squabbling states from self-destructing.

Of course Adams and Jefferson and others strived mightily to introduce a wholly new philosophy of human governance. Thank God, both sides succeeded, and the text has proven to be an extraordinary, durable mix of the Sacred and the Profane.

My point is that the process and the participants and the motivations were non-linear in the extreme. Justice Roberts and Justice Stevens and President Bush and Speaker Hastert are still busy sorting it out 219 years later.

Yes, I am an avid reader of history, but I strictly limit myself to texts that explore the mess and the human conflict that undergird each & every important event. Recent reading/re-reading: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger—Marc Levinson. Tube: The Invention of Television—David Fisher & Marshall Fisher. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World—Jill Jonnes. The Soul of a New Machine—Tracy Kidder. The Blitzkrieg Myth—John Mosier.

Closer to my intellectual home, linear approaches to business and business strategy of the Mike Porter flavor are, in my considered opinion, dangerous snares and delusions. They suggest the possibility of control of events in what is in fact a very murky world. (Think Iraq, eh?) As guru to gurus Henry Mintzberg said in his magisterial The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Strategies work brilliantly when you don’t need them—when tomorrow is a more or less a linear extension of today and yesterday (GM vs Ford vs Chrysler in the 60s and 70s come to mind); they are virtually-utterly useless in times of dis-continuous change.

I just can’t resist. As I was re-reading Henry recently, I came across this lovely snippet, actually a quote from the #1 strategic planning guru of the 60s, Russell Ackoff: “Recently I asked three corporate executives what decisions they had made in the last year that would not have been made were it not for their corporate plans. All had difficulty identifying one such decision. Since all of the plans are marked ‘secret’ or ‘confidential,’ I asked them how their competitors might benefit from possession of their plans. Each answered with embarrassment that their competitors would not benefit.”

Your turn …

(This Post is dedicated to Southwest’s incomparable Herb Kelleher: “We have a ‘strategic plan.’ It’s called ‘doing things.'”)