Tuesday 27 August 2019

Cummings: Strategist or Tactician?

Many years ago I worked for, and learned a huge amount from, a negotiator who was (and is) a legend in the energy business.  His achievements in bringing home the bacon against all odds and all predictions are legion: and his methods have always been ones I have sought to deploy wherever appropriate.  

However, as is often the case with anyone of extreme achievement, his MO was itself at an extreme end of the spectrum.  He was essentially 100% a tactician - strategy never came into it, it wasn't in his repertoire.

The typical story would go like this. Andy would be summoned at short notice to a meeting of deeply worried senior executives.  By hook or by crook, they would say, we must get a controlling interest in this new production licence that's become available.  It's critical to our operating plan, and our year-end targets.**  But OtherCo aren't budging.  We can afford $X million, and not a penny more, otherwise the reserves won't be earnings-accretive.  Andy, it looks to be impossible - but we need you to work your magic: and we need it by the end of next month.  We absolutely must have it!

So off Andy would go, make a few 'phonecalls, set up a few lunches.  (Lunch was a big feature of his tactical playbook.++)   After a couple of days he'd require one of the company's best lawyers to be at his beck & call, plus an economist and a couple of other select types.  He'd exude a well-practised air of terrible stress coupled with ultimate optimism; would always say "everything's OK", and mostly be left alone.

One month later, he'd reconvene the worried execs and the lawyer would drop a large bundle of draft contract papers on the table.  Have you got it, Andy?  - "Yep, 51% for X million.  Justin will go through the paperwork with you.  Sorry, I had to spend the whole lot, they wouldn't take anything less.  And best not ask me about my lunch bills, hoho!"  The mood in the room would rapidly become euphoric; there'd be a joky conversation about expense accounts and how he'd be fired for his lavish ways, hohoho! - and a queue would form to shake his hand.  Justin would be set on to convene them again at a later date to summarise the terms of the deal.

A few days later, the CEO would erupt into his room.  You never said you'd sold them the ABC exploration concession!  That was going to be the centrepiece of next year's drilling programme!!

"Ah well", Andy would say:  "don't worry, it's a side deal, not a consideration: it won't affect the earnings.  'By hook or by crook', remember?  'Absolutely must have it' -?"

See, Andy was a tactician.  He'd win you any particular battle, as instructed, against all odds, widely thought impossible: but with no view to what happened thereafter.  There were other tough commercial challenges that ultimately proved to be tractable using different approaches, but were quite beyond Andy to pull off.  Not A Strategist.

So here's the question.  Dominic Cummings is evidently thoughtful (see his copious writings^^), and seems to know how to win battles.  Maybe he's about to win another, and crown his career.  

But is he leaving 2020+ to look after itself? 

** meaning their bonuses, inter alia
++ a tactic I have gladly adopted in my own dealings ... well, I'm a good student
^^ upon analysis, many of them have the benefit of hindsight


Nigel Sedgwick said...

If, as I do, you view leaving the EU as an early and necessary step in reasserting democratic control over the UK (and then being more successful with the economy and other aspects), winning the EU referendum is a first(-ish) step and leaving the EU (on tolerable terms, so actually leaving - like WTO-based - rather than not leaving - like May's WA-based) is stage 2 of the strategy.

Probably it's good to have many of the same 'generals' on the team for stage 2 of the strategy as performed so (unexpectedly) well in stage 1 of the strategy. Should not success earn reward? Even promotion? I mean, who else but the successful do you want to reward and/or promote?

In other news: any old extra FUD, FUD, FUD!

Best regards

Bill Quango MP said...

Definitely a tactician. But also a strategist.

He likes to look at the real great, economic and organisational achievements of the people of the 20th century. He is very fixated on the space race. And , to a lesser extent, though only possibly as he isn’t quite as well versed in it, the mechanisation of the western economies in the 1940s.

The space race is incredible. From a field and a missile, it developed, in only 10 years, into the international space program, that put a man, safely, on the moon. The technology did not exist to do it. The systems did not exist. The training. The organisation. The planning. The research. The manufacture. The science consensus.
Every single thing needed to be done from scratch.

Mr C looks at that as an unbelievable work of genius and organisation and leadership, that cost, in real terms, less than HS2, that uses pre existing technology.

The USAAC, in 1941, after gearing up, had around 170,000 in uniform.
By 1946 they had 2.5 million, highly trained, better armed, better equipped, better provisioned men and women, fighting. Some In countries they had never even heard of in 1940.

The simple logistical feat of creating an airforce, and the pilots to fly the planes, is incredible.

In both cases, one or two key figures, got the job done. As General Groves did at Manhattan.

Cummings has identified that with the right people. The right mindset. The right resources, and the right attitude, there is almost no problem, however enormous, that can’t be overcome.

The USAAC was churning out 2000 pilots a year in 1941. By 1943, it was 20,000. The tale of how that was achieved, is as remarkable as how those bombers and fighters were built, in places where no such thing had been there before. It is a tale, almost as heroic as what the USSR was doing in Russia with tanks and aircraft.
But the USA did it for every single item of war material. Not just front line.

Cummings sees that, and sees, I believe, that with that kind of success, what follows, can also be delivered. If the ‘ right’ people remain at the helm.

dearieme said...

"Some In countries they had never even heard of in 1940." Be fair; most Americans have never heard of most countries.

Raedwald said...

He may be both tactician and strategist, but that doesn't mean we should trust him with both roles.

As a tactician to get the UK out of the EU on the most *immediately* advantageous terms - he's ace

But his vision frightens me, to be frank. It's techocratic rather than democratic, a vision to elevate the human race as a whole and not to win each man his cow and acre. I can see no room for love, or faith, or hope in it.

So as long as his tactics at the heart of power don't include those for putting him in charge of the nation's strategic direction post-Brexit, I'm comfortable.

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Raedwald writes: "But [Cummings's] vision frightens me, to be frank. It's technocratic rather than democratic, a vision to elevate the human race as a whole and not to win each man his cow and acre. I can see no room for love, or faith, or hope in it."

This raises an issue that goes far beyond Nick Drew's original post. And I agree with Raedwald that it is very important.

What I see is that we should all value a system (cultural, political, economic, etc) that allows each person opportunity to develop close to their personal potential. This is, I think, especially important in education of children through to young adults - in which 'the system' makes a significant contribution. Especially important is that children and the young should not be significantly inhibited by (narrowness in the vision, resources or diligence of) their parents or guardians.

In addition, I see that we should value a system (again cultural, political, economic, etc) with healthcare that allows each person opportunity to develop close to their personal potential. Again there is an addition. This is the benefit to the whole of society through a system which provides timely action (that very likely would not otherwise have occurred) so that short-term cost leads to long-term gain. That is people do not avoidably become long-term wrecks through illness or injury, through lack of timely treatment.

Lastly, I see that we should value a system (again cultural, political, economic, etc) with welfare that allows each person opportunity to continue to develop close to their personal potential. This in spite of personal short-term adversity, which is largely (if not totally) down to the throw of the dice rather than personally attributable fault.

These three things are, in my view, what should be wanted by all individuals separately, and by everyone together in the democracy they choose to govern themselves by. Thus, I think they are different from having a technocratic system.

However, we then seem to have developed a problem with the politics of equality and similar aspects from the left of the political spectrum. We do not put anywhere near as much effort into encouraging realisation of the potential of the most able individuals as we put into 'propping up' the lessor-able members of society.

Getting back to Raedwald, what do we do if some members of society are incapable of winning their cow and their acre - and even if our system gave it to them, they would soon loose it? This clearly does happen, though we all hope not very much. And what about those who claim they need help to obtain their cow and acre (and keep it), when they have the ability themselves. And what about those who want today's cow and acre to become tomorrow's herd and hectare?

So, given where we are and the distinctly strong social democratic (and otherwise left and/or technocratic - and can the latter even be separated from the former) slant of the EU, I see it as follows. We fail to encourage the best to achieve their potential - which would also allow our society to improve at a higher rate. We waste resources quite a bit by pandering to those who could win and manage their own cow/herd and acre/hectare or better but find it easier to require to be supported. Maybe also we go round and round in circles, believing in too much technocratic government rather than a much greater proportion of development through the free market.

Best regards

AndrewZ said...

Richard North claims that Cummings was responsible for Vote Leave not putting forward any plan for how Brexit would actually be done. This made tactical sense because it avoided giving the other side any specific points to attack. But it created strategic problems because a referendum won on that basis would inevitably be followed by a bitter struggle to define what leaving actually meant, with the government paralyzed by internal conflicts and unable to claim a mandate for any particular course of action. Therefore, he looks more like a tactician than a strategist.

However, Cummings most reminds me of Robert McNamara, the infamous US SecDef of the Vietnam era. He seems to have the same faith in new thinking and new technology to quickly solve every problem, and the same tendency to dismiss all practical objections as cynical obstruction by vested interests. That bull-headed overconfidence didn't work out too well for McNamara and I doubt it will work for Cummings either.

James Higham said...

Boris has shown every sign of bypassing parliament, not to put Brexit through but to put through May’s WA, minus one provision only.

Nick Drew said...

James, it certainly can be interpreted that way

Presumably Corbyn must be hoping that's right, followed by a NCV with enough furious Tories onside, then a GE with Farage destroying Boris' chances.

Trouble is, that's a really obvious scenario

Bill Quango MP said...

I wouldn’t think McNamara would be a good fit for Dominic.

In the Brexit book, it says he self styled the leave campaign to use the tactics from the memoirs of Nguyên Giáp. The successful North Vietnamese general who defeated the Japanese. The French. And the Americans.

He wouldn’t have much time for Robert’s overload of useless data approach.

Anonymous said...


In your comments about the Vietnamese, you forgot to mention they saw off he Chinese too.


Taking the Cummings question further. Will he last longer than the other Rasputin, Steve Bannon, who seems to have disappeared along with his genius?

Perhaps Cummings is promoting his own genius to a gullible media and even more gullible political class.

andrew said...

I think the media is promoting Cummings as an amorphous mass rejection of their core liberal values asks too many difficult questions
- whether the media should reflect the public mood or 'guide' it - and guide it where

wheras (Looking at the guardian) a few thousand words on Cummings - not as clever as he thinks and a bit of a c*** is so much easier

Anyhoo recent events indicate Tactician!

hovis said...

Tactician with delusions of strategy.