Rear Admiral John Kingwell of Universal Defence and Security Solutions, and a former Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies, considers how the challenges of the contemporary world call, more than ever, for thinking and acting strategically

Having had the privilege of leading a college that focused on preparing senior officers, officials and business leaders for strategic leadership roles, I begin this article on a controversial note by stating that both government and business leaders often do not have the time and, in many cases, the skills to develop and implement effective strategy.  Indeed, many organisations use the word strategy when they actually mean important or urgent – and without the right focus, analysis and approach no matter how important a message or plan is, it will fail to deal with today’s challenges as well as opportunities.

In this article, I will outline why the challenges of the twenty-first century demand that both business and government act strategically and then explore how providing structure to that strategic activity can pay real dividends.

Today’s global drivers are well captured by the Strategic Trends Programme produced for the whole of government and freely available by the Development and Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) – effectively the MOD’s strategic think tank.  The key trends of demography, urbanisation, climate change, resources and technology and their impact out to 2050 have been well studied and described.  What is often less considered is the cumulative effect of these drivers in terms of global and regional impact.  For instance, the combination of population growth, urbanisation and climate change (including rising sea levels) could, by 2045 put up to 130 million additional people at risk of flooding and extreme weather events – three quarters of them in Asia.  We can expect to see urbanisation and population growth accelerating the development of mega cities. With proper planning and preparation in the developing world, these could become major catalysts for economic growth, but without it could become centres for poverty and social unrest.

Population growth, when combined by stresses to food and water supplies as well as being exacerbated by climate change – could result in higher numbers of humanitarian disasters and increased competition for natural resources.  While in some countries the challenge will be around population growth and youth bulges, in others it will population decline and an increasingly aged society.  Geopolitics will be impacted as the global economic centre of gravity continues to shift east and China becomes the preeminent global power, and India the world’s most populous nation.  The growing potential of Africa, the opening of Artic Sea routes and an increasingly energy independent United States may all have significant implications.

Alongside climate change, the trend whose impact is already very apparent is technology.  The internet of things, big data, processing power, automation and AI see us entering a new Information Age that may offer mitigation for the other global challenges that I have described and real opportunities across society – including work, leisure time and medicine.  However, like all these trends, there will also be challenges, not least around how the virtual world impacts on individual identity and how we manage the human machine interface.

How we deal with these challenges – like climate change and COVID 19 – is not a matter for short term or national planning, but long-term thinking on an international and perhaps global basis.  The pace and scale of change being described is such that a business-as-usual approach will not enable nations or business to seize the opportunities that emerge – nor cope with the challenges.  Hence the need for innovation – to change, develop and modernise – but this needs to be underpinned by a clear vision of where we want our organisation to be in the future and how we get there. Here are some tools or guiderails for making strategy useful in any setting.

The first key step in the process is understanding both the problem and the strategic context. What are we trying to achieve; where do we want to be (in government terms what are our policy goals), what is the strategic context; how do the commercial and/or global trends affect us, and what do we know about our stakeholders and competitors? In analysing the other actors, it is vital to be able to place yourself in their shoes and avoid simplistic stereotypes or impressions. This understanding will greatly aid assessment of how they may react to your strategy and messaging – often best supported by the creation of a red team to challenge your own plans and assumptions.

An important element of this analysis is an open mindedness to see your own organisation or nation through the eyes of others and accepting at the outset that there will be areas for improvement and weakness.

All this requires time – time to think, consult research and analyse – and it is all too easy for a busy leader or board to rush to the next stage of considering what to do without completing the underpinning analysis.  There are countless examples of where not investing in this ‘understanding phase’ or simply getting it wrong resulted in flawed assumptions and ultimate failure.

In the next step, we develop and compare potential approaches – or courses of action – by considering what tools or resources are available to us (as a nation or a corporate) and how we might use them to achieve realistic objectives.  Having done this, we can then compare each potential approach’s strengths and weaknesses and test each against your own criteria for acceptability.

This enables us to decide on a course of action and in simple terms we have created a strategy that describes where we want our organisation to be (the vision), what key objective we are trying to achieve on the route to that vision (the ends), what resources we intend to employ (the means) and how we intend to use our resources (the ways).  What distinguishes a strategy from a plan or narrative is that it should enable both resources to be allocated and the organisation to prioritise its efforts – including when to stop activity that does not support the strategic objectives.

There is of course much to be gained from the thinking conducted up to this point, but many would say that the final step of implementing the strategy is both the most challenging and important. This is not merely a matter of producing a glossy for the boardroom but clearly articulating what we are trying to achieve and why, together with how, to all levels of the organisation and then seeing it through.  A key element of the implementation phase is regularly reviewing the strategy to ensure it remains appropriate and measuring its success – and when necessary, identifying when the strategy needs altering.

The largest obstacle to developing and implementing strategy is often the culture that exists within your own organisation – and defence and government are no exceptions to this. Indeed, the Chilcot report into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war pulled no punches in highlighting group think and the lack of constructive challenge as important failures in UK decision making.  This brings a focus to the leader’s role in the enterprise.  In particular, the need to encourage and accept constructive challenge and to build a leadership team that embraces diversity of thought, approach, and experience.  This includes encouraging intellectual
curiosity – so vital in the understanding phase of the execution of a strategy.

Key to success is effective talent management, from recruitment to the Board and the self-awareness to realise individual and personal shortcomings and put in place a team that complements each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Defence has expertise in thorough career leadership development and can bring additional, often unique, experience to bear of ‘leadership in crisis’ – not least in ensuring the resilience of the leadership team and organisation as well as risk management.

In sum, I have set out a compelling case for the need for leaders to be able to develop and implement strategy.   This, however, is not a skill set that is in abundance and in helping to develop strategies the four-step process I have outlined (and there are detailed tools available within each step to help corral thinking and analysis) can assist by ordering thinking and ensuring that all the relevant factors are considered.  What is more they can be applied as easily to commerce as well as to government.

The act of strategising – thinking about how to deal with the broadest long-term challenges and opportunities your organisation may face – requires investment, particularly in time and education, but can provide real competitive advantage.  In addition, I have emphasised the link between innovation (and the need for change) to strategising and leadership and I would suggest that the model used by, as well as the experience of the military is worthy of examination, and this is where UDSS can assist and advise.  Although both DCDC and RCDS are Defence organisations (note, both my recent predecessors at RCDS were very distinguished diplomats) the analysis they produce and the structured approach they support to develop strategy and prepare strategic leaders have real utility in any setting.


Universal Defence and Security Solutions Ltd (UDSS) was founded by General Sir Richard Barrons and Peter Hewitt to provide policy, strategy and operational solutions for governments, businesses and commercial organisations, on a global basis. UDSS has the largest and broadest membership of former British Armed Forces personnel, regular and reserve from SNCO to 4 Star, as well as former MoD Civil Servants. This enables UDSS to provide the very best expertise in the major defence and security challenges of today, including leading in contemporary military ‘hard power’ capability; ‘hybrid’ or ‘political’ confrontation; information operations and cyber warfare; peace support; wider security; constabulary; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. www.universal-defence.com


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