Water tower strategy

When Germany invaded Russia during World War II, its army had carefully prepared its assault. But it still ran into some unanticipated problems.

German railroad managers correctly prepared for the fact that Russian rails were spaced farther apart than German rails, and the Germans brought kits to retrofit German locomotives.

However, they missed the implication of the wider and heavier trains — the Russians could carry greater quantities of water on board, and consequently spaced the water towers further apart. That was disastrous for the German locomotives. The logical solution, of course, was to build more water towers, but the railroad workers were civilian and took weekends and holidays off, despite the desperate need for railroad transport.

As a consultant, I’m frequently asked how any businessperson can catch such quirky problems if the mighty German Wermacht was unable to anticipate such things. The best answer I can give is to read and read and read.

The exposure of reading, coupled with learning from doing — living — is better than just living. Consider what I admit is a highly biased, irreverently annotated and incomplete list of strategy books for your corporate library.

My hope is, ultimately, for you to find your water towers spaced appropriately.

* The single most important work on strategy is Sun Tzu’s ”The Art of War.” This book almost certainly has been read by more people than almost any other, and for good reason. Of the numerous editions in print, by far my favorite is James Clavell’s, published by Delacorte.

* Two other Eastern works that are nearly universally admired are Miamoto Musachi’s ”The Book of Five Rings” and Yamamoto Tsunitomo’s ”Hagakure” (periodically out of print).

* Machiavelli’s ”The Prince” is a classic, though overrated.

* Von Clauzewitz’s ”On War” is widely touted, but dense, inaccessible and unreadable. I do not recommend it.

* B.H. Liddel Hart is nearly universally admired for his thoughtful analysis, ”Strategy,” although it’s very demanding.

* The granddaddy of modern business planning is George Steiner, and his ”Strategic Planning” is highly recommended.

* If you’re seeking great literature that is fun, easy to read and will give you lots to think about, I recommend John McPhee’s ”Place de la Concorde Swisse” (a one-of-a-kind, gem that just may save your business); James Clavell’s ”Shogun” (the shogun was modeled after Ieyasu Tokugawa, who arguably combined the greatest political, business and military acumen of all time and whose academic biographies are boring); and ”Scipio Africanus” by Liddel Hart. Scipio arguably was the greatest general ever.

Some will disagree with this list, but if this column causes you to read just one work and you become a better strategist for it, my irreverence will have been worthwhile. Enjoy. Lance Kurke, Ph.D., is president of Kurke & Associates Inc., a strategic planning and leadership development firm. He also serves on the faculty at Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon Universities. Reach him at (412) 281-2930 or at [email protected].