war on the rocks

The Hard Thing About Strategy

February 18, 2016

Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things (HarperBusiness, 2014).


 

In his magisterial history of strategy, Lawrence Freedman argues that the most interesting strategists of the past 50 years have been American businessmen.  The Hard Thing About Hard Things is all by itself proof of Freedman’s argument.

Ben Horowitz is a founder of two big businesses and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected venture capital firms, Andreesen Horowitz.  His firm specializes in founder-run businesses. The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a guide for startup CEOs about how to be a CEO.  Horowitz uses his own experiences as a founding CEO to illustrate the essential knowledge CEOs need.  Mariners say there is no education so valuable as sailing on a sinking ship.  Horowitz gives a gunwale view as his businesses take on water.

Freedman defines strategy as the art of generating power by finding creative solutions to pressing problems in contests against smart adversaries.  Strategy requires people capable of supple thinking to create new alternatives, fluid in adapting plans to changing circumstances.  The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a master class in scrambling to find solutions before market competitors, technological innovation, attrition or discouragement of crucial staff, and insolvency drive you out of business.  His fundamental conclusion: “if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.”  Even Freedman couldn’t have said it better.

What Freedman explores and Horowitz experiences is that success is not decisive; instead it creates new problems to solve.  Being a CEO means there is no end to your problems.  Remaining alive to fight another day (or solvent, to use the business analogy) is the measure of success.  Horowitz’s book reads like a horror movie script: At every turn, new dangers emerge.  One marvels at the sheer magnitude of challenges, the frequency of occurrence, and the deftness with which he escapes.  When he cannot find a solution, Horowitz asks himself a different question and in doing so unlocks a new perspective on the problem.  Along the way he dispenses hard-won lessons about how to run a complex endeavor.

I especially liked that his requirements for innovation were knowledge, skill, and courage.  Knowledge and skill are obvious, but courage is often overlooked — and necessary in firing friends or smart people who can’t continue to meet the company’s needs, understanding when there is a silver bullet and when you just need to use a lot of lead bullets instead, determining whether to persevere or change course, declining to accrue “management debt” by making expedient decisions with costly long-term consequences, or preserving a culture offensive to some but important to the essential people.

This book also ranges into how to hire the right people (the most common mistake is “valuing lack of weakness rather than strength”), how to ensure training (“no startup has time to do optional things.  Therefore, training must be mandatory”), the question leaders should always ask in staff meetings (“what are we not doing?”).  The loneliness of responsibility military commanders experience turns out to be not so different from that of startup CEOs.  As Horowitz describes it, “the struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced.”

Horowitz even offers up a Silicon Valley acronym the American military should be ashamed it did not coin: WFIO (pronounced whiff-ee-oh).  While I am too ladylike to transpose it into words (buy the book!), the phrase connotes the point at which true strategy begins: realization of failure on your current course.  The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a brilliant book of strategy.

 

Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

 

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