In July, Ethos CRS welcomed John Powers into our experienced team of facilitators.
John has 40 years of experience in leadership, strategy, and policy development, within Australia and the Five Eyes’ national security, intelligence, and academic communities.
We recently sat down with John to talk all things strategy, his decorated international career and some useful tips and tricks.
You’ve had a long and diverse career. Without giving away state secrets, what have been the highlights? What work or sort of work do you really enjoy?
First, in the special activities field, each day meant something. It had a purpose. What you were doing, no matter how mundane, had an impact.
Particularly in my younger days, I thrived in small unit operations. This meant either working alone or with 4–6 folks on an activity that required a wee bit of stealth, a wee bit of creativity, and a whole lot of providence.
As I got more senior, I loved being a chief of staff. Although I enjoyed being in command or being a director, being the person working all the details behind the scenes and those doing the hard work on the point was quite fulfilling. I like to find solutions to hard problems.
Chiefs of staff are all about giving folks free advice. Folks can pay attention to us or not, unlike a commander or director. I viewed my job as saving folks from themselves!
Strategy is your bread and butter. How did you develop an interest in the area?
I became interested in strategy as a cadet at the military college in the US. We would look at various events throughout history and then dissect them into operational components. It gave me a good sense of why a sound strategy was important to achieving success, or in some cases, minimising losses.
What’s the point of strategy? Why is it important?
Strategy is about shaping the future to achieve desirable ends with available ways and means. Peter Drucker, an Austrian-American management consultant, whose writings contributed significantly to the modern-day approach to business and business management education, succinctly sums up why strategy is important.
‘The best way to predict your future is to create it. How do you create it? First, by developing a sound strategy!’
A strategy is the grist – the mortar – the glue AND the bridge that binds all the elements together. It serves as the check, the balance, and as the roadmap.
A strategy reconciles the ends with the means and provides a purpose of action. It tells the workforce or the populace what leaders think and want: the roadmap.
This roadmap is then constantly reviewed against the environment by factors that leaders and the people explicitly recognise, such as budget constraints and the limitations inherent in the tools of governance. Finally, it is balanced by cultural or cognitive partitions that shape attitudes.
What is an example of effective strategy?
First, let’s describe what a strategy isn’t: strategy is not about aspirations, it’s not about objectives, and it’s not about wishful thinking.
Strategy is about hard, sometimes non-reversable choices that are backed up by resources. Thinking strategically is a skill that is learnt through training, experience, and most of all failures.
As a strategist, what I emphasise to folks when they bring me on is that a good strategy will cause three things to occur as it’s developed:
1. It will state things people don’t want to hear.
2. It will recommend choices people don’t want to make
3. It will force leaders to have conversations people they don’t want to have.
An example of an effective strategy would be the West’s approach to the Cold War with the Soviets. However, the West failed in developing a strategy to secure the peace like it did with Germany and Japan after WW II when the Soviet Union collapsed. As a result, we have the issues in the Ukraine we have now. Why did the strategy wane after the fall of the wall? Because nations rushed to cash in on the peace dividend and began to focus on elections and budgets versus the national strategies that allowed them to succeed.
What’s been the biggest strategic failure over the past, say, 25 years? Why?
Well, as an intelligence professional I’m akin to hearing that most things are intelligence failures versus strategic failures.
The reasons a strategy fails is because is not because the strategy is bad, it’s because leaders stop thinking strategically. Strategic thinking emphasises a constant loop of question, results and evaluation. However, history is replete with cases where strategy becomes inflexible doctrine supported by the national security and political structures.
The invasion of Iraq exemplifies this. The strategy to take down Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was ultimately a success. Unfortunately, the follow-on operation into Iraq was added void of any strategic thought. As such, Australia, the US and our allies were mired in a war that cost thousands of lives. This is a perfect example of when a strategy becomes an inflexible political doctrine.
In the corporate world, I reckon the failure of Polaroid and Kodak to successfully navigate the transition to digital photography. One of the underlying culprits was what cognitive psychologists sometimes call the status quo trap: the tendency to favour what already exists and information that confirms that choice (also known as group think).
If you would like to discuss any or all things strategic, or develop the capability of your organisation, then contact us: email@example.com; 02 6247 2225.