Strategy: An Introduction

What was David’s Strategy against Goliath? [extract from Strategy: A History by Sir David Lawrence]

One of the most iconic of all the Bible’s stories is that of David and Goliath. It is invariably invoked by the underdog, yet the underdog status was illusory because David had God on his side. The basics of the story are well known. On opposite sides of a valley were the armies of the Philistines and Israelite’s. 

Out of the Philistine camp emerged a giant of a man, Goliath of Gath, dressed in heavy brass armor, protected by a shield, and wielding a large spear with a large iron head. He dared the Israelite’s to send out a champion to fight him. If he was killed in the fight then the Philistines would serve the Israelite’s.  If he prevailed it would be the Israelite’s who served.

The challenge, repeated daily for forty days without response, appeared to paralyze the Israelite’s, including their King, Saul. They “were dismayed and greatly afraid.” The only one not afraid was a young shepherd, David, who had been sent to the camp by his father with some bread and cheese for the army. 

He heard Goliath’s challenge, saw the fear around him, and noted a promise of great riches should anyone actually manage to kill Goliath. David presented himself to the dubious king. David still young, yet Goliath had been “a man of war from his youth.” David offered as his credentials a tale of how he had killed both a lion and a bear where were after his lambs. 

Saul relented and gave David his armor and sword, dressing him for a gladiatorial fight with Goliath. But David discarded these accouterments, saying he could not take them as he had “not tested.” Instead he took off his staff, five smooth stones form the brook, and his sling. Not surprisingly, Goliath found the challenger that the Israelite’s had eventually produced unimpressive, even insulting. “Am I a dog that thou comest to me with staves?” Their encounter was brief. Goliath promised to feeds David’s “flesh unto the fowls of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 

The young man replied that he came in God’s name and than ran toward the Philistine. As soon as he was in position, he took a stone out of his bag “and slung it and smote the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sunk into his forehead. And he fell upon his face to the earth.” David then took the giant’s sword to kill him and cut off his head. When the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.

David’s success depended on surprise and accuracy. He knew he could not defeat Goliath on the giant’s terms, which is why he rejected Saul’s armor and with it the conventions of this form of combat. Unencumbered, he had speed and so could unleash his secret weapon before Goliath had a chance to respond. He had one chance with his sling. If he missed, or of the stone had pinged off Goliath’s armor or not stunned him so effectively, there would have been no second shot. As vital as the first shot was quick action to prevent any recovery. Not only did David bring Goliath down but by killing him prevented him getting up again. 

He depended on the Philistines accepting the result, and not trying to recover honor in the face of such a sneaky attract by turning the individual contest into a full battle. If they had done so, David prowess with his sling would have been of no value. Indeed, this was a trick he could never use again. David had no plan B. If his plan A had failed, he would have been left defenseless. 

The story is rarely given any context. This was one of a complex set of encounters between the Israelite’s and the Philistines. The Philistines controlled the territory west of the Jordan River. In earlier clashes, the Israelite’s fared very badly and lost four thousand men. Having apparently learned their lesson and returned to the laws of God, they regained God’s protection, so that at one point a loud noise was sufficient to send the Philistines running away in panic. They were chased and subdued. The Israelite’s recaptured lost land. All this took place while the prophet Samuel was still leading the country as Judge.

Saul was the first king of the Israelite’s, anointed by Samuel. This constitutional innovation was intended to meet the Israelite’s desire to be led in the same as other nations. Their king was chosen on the grounds that he looked the part- handsome and tall- was humble, and had shown military prowess.  He was not, however, always obedient to God. Hostilities resumed with the Philistines after a provocative raid by Saul’s son Jonathon in which a Philistine officer was killed. The Philistines mobilized and the Israelite’s were once again overwhelmed. Saul turned out to be a poor general (for example forbidding his men food on the eve of a major battle) and cautious (reluctant to go out and face Goliath himself). Given that God was supposed to be the best defense, this lack of confidence-therefore faith- was itself an act of disobedience. Though David’s sling gained the headlines, Goliath’s fate was sealed by David’s faith. [End]


 “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder.

Or as Mike Tyson is quoted as saying; “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”


“Strategy is not a plan.” Sir Lawrence Freedman 


Having a strategic approach, despite the problems of finding ways through the uncertainty and confusion, is preferably to one of that is merely tactical, let alone random.  

There his no agreed upon definition of strategy that describes the field and limits its boundaries. One common contemporary definition describes it as being about maintaining a balance between ends, ways, and means; about  identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives. 

By and large strategy comes into play where there is actual or potential conflict, when interests collide and forms of resolution are required. This is why strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows  one to move with confidence form one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns. 

“The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and missteps of friends, provide strategy with its challenges and drama.”  Lawrence Freedman 

Strategy is expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly moment to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy that should emerge is one of fluid and flexible, govern by the starting point and not the end point.  

Strategy is Complex

Strategy is often present as a duel between two opponents. More of a reflection of the military origins, but it can also be the result of the simple modeling of conflicts encouraged by game theory with the standard two-by-two matrix.

Few situations involving strategy are that simple. 

Take the boxer in a ring with Mike Tyson, he might have a few options, but his prospects would improve greatly of it was possible to break the rules and bring in a fellow fighter from outside the ring. 

A duel is a bad metaphor because it suggests a fight to the finish with only one winner. Yet conflicts could be resolved through building on shared interests or forging a winning coalition with the next available partner. 

Harry Yarger, a teacher at the U.S. Army War College described strategy as “the domain of the strong intellect, the lifelong student, the dedicated professional, and the invulnerable ego.”

But does a master strategist exist? 

Be it a battle field of two or more opposing armies or the market place of competing companies, the environment/system in which they operate in is one of complexity. 

Yarger suggested that “strategic thinking is about thoroughness and holistic thinking. It seeks to understand how the parts interact to form the whole by looking at parts and relationships among them-the effects they have on one another in the past, present, and anticipated future.” This holistic perspective would require “a comprehensive knowledge of what else is happening within the strategic environment and the potential first-, second-, and third-order effects of its own choices on the efforts those above, below, and on the strategist’s own level.” Nor would it be good enough to work with snapshots and early gains. 

“The strategist must reject the expedient, near-term benefit.”

The supposed holistic view of the master strategist would also be problematic. There is good reasons to pay attention to “system effects,” the unanticipated results of connections between apparently separate spheres of activity. The likelihood of unexpected effects was a good reason to take care when urging bold moves and then to monitor closely their consequences once taken. Exploring the range and variety of relationships within the broader environment could help identify creative possibilities by generating indirect forms of influence, targeting an opponent’s weakest inks, or forging surprising alliances. 

In principle everything was connected everything else.

Sir Freedman describes how society and their military system is a complex system. 

The idea that societies and their military systems might be comprehended as complex systems encourages the view, reflected in the perplexing searches for enemy centers of gravity, that hitting an enemy system in exactly the right place would cause it to crumble quickly, as the impact would reverberate and affect the interconnected parts. The frustration of the search was a result of the fact that effects would not simply radiate out form some vital center. Societies could adapt to shocks. As systems, they could break down into more viable subsystems, establish barriers, reduce dependencies , and find alternative forms of sustenance. Feedback would be constant and complex.

Sir Freedman’s description above, applies to competitive interactive between competing companies within and outside the industry. A simplistic story about how Instagram bankrupted Kodak due to being first on the internet, is widely accepted and spread across the internet. While there is an element of truth to it, but it is vastly misleading.

As Sir Freedman described above about society and their military systems operating in t a complex [adaptive] system, it equally applies to companies across all industries. 

Michael Mauboussin, Chairman of the Board, Trustee of Santa Fe Institute, a world leading research institute, provides an example of a complex adaptive system (CAS):  

A complex adaptive system has three characteristics. The first is that the system consists of a number of heterogeneous agents, and each of those agents makes decisions about how to behave. The most important dimension here is that those decisions will evolve over time. The second characteristic is that the agents interact with one another. That interaction leads to the third—something that scientists call emergence: In a very real way, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The key issue is that you can’t really understand the whole system by simply looking at its individual parts.

Can you give us a concrete example?

A canonical example of a complex adaptive system is an ant colony. Each individual ant has a decision role: Am I foraging? Am I doing midden work? Each one also interacts with the other ants. A lot of that is local interaction. What emerges from their behavior is an ant colony.

If you examine the colony on the colony level, forgetting about the individual ants, it appears to have the characteristics of an organism. It’s robust. It’s adaptive. It has a life cycle. But the individual ant is working with local information and local interaction. It has no sense of the global system. And you can’t understand the system by looking at the behavior of individual ants. That’s the essence of a complex adaptive system—and the thing that’s so vexing. Emergence disguises cause and effect. We don’t really know what’s going on.


Sir Freedman indicates this observation in the opening pages of the introduction of his book the following: The biblical passage observes “that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”The American writer Damon Runyon added, “But that’s the way to bet.”


For more sources and informational about CAS:

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, SFI Trustee Michael Mauboussin talks about complex adaptive systems and why successful investors have stopped paying attention to expert analysis in favor of diverse and challenging viewpoints. The interview is part of an HBR special issue, “Embracing Complexity.

Santa Fe Institute  

Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman

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