Wednesday, November 14, 2007

William Easterly reviews William Duggan's strategy book

Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement. Easterly says:
Mr. Duggan, who teaches strategy at Columbia Business School, argues that the commonplace formula has it backward. Instead of setting goals first, he says, it is better to watch for opportunities with large payoffs at low costs and only then set your goals. That is what innovators throughout history have done, as Mr. Duggan shows in a deliriously fast-paced tour of history.

Napoleon is Mr. Duggan's canonical example -- his strategic genius was not to storm a pre-fixed position on the battlefield (the traditional approach to military strategy at the time) but to attack any old position that came along where his army was at its strongest and the enemy's at its weakest. Similarly, in the battle for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. seized on the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to shift the NAACP's strategy away from filing lawsuits and toward organizing nonviolent civil disobedience.

Despite such success stories, official aid agencies persist in the bull-headed approach. In a caricature of everything Mr. Duggan says not to do, the U.N. and the World Bank have been pushing a campaign called the Millennium Development Goals. It sets quantitative targets for every conceivable problem of the poor. It then tries to raise whatever it takes in aid money to reach them. This approach has succeeded as a fund-raising strategy but not as a problem-solving one -- it is already clear that most of the goals, if not all, will be missed for Africa, where the problems of the poor are most dire.

The lure of fixed goals is hard to resist even for people who know better. As Mr. Duggan notes, Bill Gates has failed to transfer his Microsoft creative spark to the realm of global poverty. The Gates Foundation is following the fixed-goal approach -- throw a lot of money at the pre-determined goal of an AIDS vaccine, for example. Mr. Gates even gave a Harvard commencement speech on global poverty this year in which he said -- you guessed it -- that you need first to set your goals and then to do whatever it takes to reach them.

I've had many conversations with the author, who is a good friend; they are always interesting.

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