Saturday, August 19, 2006

Clausewitz and Uncertainty

A couple of days ago a good friend of mine and brilliant mind Michael Lang, Professor for History at the University of Maine, helped me to rediscover Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz, a Prussian 19th century general, is famous for his strategic writings about war. Michael believes strongly that Clausewitz’ argument that “no amount of analytical insights can ever fully count for the uncertainty and unpredictability of war” continues to have strong implications for business strategies today. After rereading parts of Clausewitz writings, I could not agree more.

Clausewitz writes about the nature of war but most of his thinking and conclusions are very applicable and relevant to today’s marketing challenges. His main themes are threefold:
  • The uncertainty and unpredictability of warlike situations can never be mastered,
  • We have to accept and even embrace the nonlinearity of warlike event (brilliantly described in Alan D. Beyerchen’s article “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War”),
  • Successful strategists need to search for concepts of how to deal with this unpredictability in nonlinear event situations.

Don’t these three thoughts sound exactly as a good description of today’s marketer challenges? The marketer’s job of creating relevant interaction between brands and consumers face all three strategic concepts: Unpredictability, Nonlinearity, and the need to deal systematically with both challenges without the hubris of ever mastering it. Today’s marketing issues are all about the loss of control and the uncertainty created by the non-linear interaction between brand and consumer.

What can we learn from Clausewitz’ struggle with these phenomena. I suggest three elements:

  • While we marketers have to strive for more certainty, we also have to embrace uncertainty: It’s not about eliminating every single aspect of uncertainty but to approach a higher accuracy level of prediction without obtaining unjustified arrogance about upcoming events that are all just beyond secure prediction
  • Understand the nonlinear make-up of today’s communication world: Analyze diligently every single aspect of the non-linear characteristics of the brand-consumer interaction space
  • Design tools, and mental frameworks to deal with uncertainty: It’s not about increasing the quality of prediction by 1% but having tools and a mental framework in place to deal with uncertainty.

Clausewitz might have written over 150 years ago about the intricacies of 19th century wars but he was more a strategic mind than a warrior. Sometimes it’s more insightful to understand basic strategic issues with writings from great minds, independent of the age of their thoughts.


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