Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy, and Business Professionals

  • Published

Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy, and Business Professionals by Ross Harrison. Potomac Books, 2013, 224 pp.

Ross Harrison, a professor in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, believes that “the concept of strategy has become diffused and devoid of any real clarity” (p. x). He presents a solution to this problem in his book Strategic Thinking in 3D. This primer strives to deliver a general framework for thinking strategically, developing “universal principles” and identifying “common conceptual underpinnings” applicable to a wide array of strategic domains, including national security, foreign policy, and business (p. xiii). In this regard, I believe that Harrison succeeds.

He begins by delivering an excellent historical account of the definitions of strategy, classifying them as inward or outward facing. Inward-facing strategy sets goals and manufactures capability, creating the “internal energy and muscle” needed to support its outward face (p. 165). Capabilities are a core component, giving organizations the potential to act. The author discusses inward-facing strategic definitions in the context of leveraged resources, sets of mutually reinforcing decisions, and process. Outward-facing strategy applies the “energetic muscular capability created internally” to shape the organization’s external environment in a beneficial manner (p. 164). From this perspective, Harrison offers a review of strategic definitions focused on managing uncertainty and risk, orienting towards competitors, and shaping the external environment.

From this analysis, he concludes that “strategy is about adapting to or shaping one’s environment so that what otherwise would be improbable becomes possible—it is about creating a multiplier effect on resources and actions” (p. xii), asserting that resource scarcity should not be seen as a limitation. Instead, an effective strategist should develop strategy that leverages scarce resources to achieve “outsized goals” (p. 5). This point is particularly relevant, given the current fiscally austere environment.

Having established this foundation, Harrison presents us with his 3D strategic framework, whose external environment consists of three dimensions: systems, opponents, and groups. By concentrating on them together, the author notes that “the power of integration and the resultant multiplier effects can be realized” (p. xii). Furthermore, he asserts that success depends upon analyzing and acting in all three dimensions of the strategic environment simultaneously.

A system is composed of a web of relationships in which a change in one part affects the other parts. Strategy in this dimension is indirect, and the strategist attempts either to disrupt the external environment as a means of reducing the opponent’s leverage or to enhance that environment as a means of improving one’s own leverage. In the systems dimension, leverage is affected by key relationships, vital system properties (e.g., patterns of interaction), and geographic position. This approach is reasonable for a midterm to long-term planning horizon.

Regarding analysis of the opponent, Harrison addresses the need to assess his capabilities, motivations, and strategy (p. 89) and to design one’s strategy expressly for him. Specifically, the author speaks of attacking the opponent’s capability, dissuading him from exercising his capability, and disrupting his strategy (p. 102). Because of the likelihood of an adversarial response in this dimension, one must adapt strategy on the fly—a necessity that markedly contrasts the systems dimension, in which the opponent does not directly counter every action.

Harrison then defines a group as “a collection of individuals that can affect the leverage dynamic between an organization or country against its opponents” (p. 122). He argues that either formal and informal groups derive their power from globalization and the “ubiquity of social media”; consequently, they can “challenge authority in ways that were unimaginable even twenty years ago” (ibid.). Like the systems strategy, that for groups is indirect, aiming at the environment in which they operate. Thus, one must think in terms of a midterm to long-term planning horizon, and actions in this dimension benefit greatly from reinforcing actions in the other dimensions—similar to the say-do gap typical of strategic communications. Harrison suggests “think[ing] of the aim as the behavior your strategy is designed to elicit from the group, while the goal is the impact that behavior should have on the opponent” (p. 125).

The book presents an effective strategic framework that can certainly complement a senior leader’s experience and intuition. It is approachable and easy to understand, making no demands for previous knowledge of or experience with strategy. Moreover, its choice of dimensions is reasonable, having parallels in the strategic literature (e.g., political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure [PMESII] systems-thinking related to describing the operational environment). Although some of the author’s examples are quite cursory, he nevertheless integrates aspects of national security, foreign policy, and business strategies into the text. However, his creation of a “new” vocabulary, introducing terms such as linchpin capabilities, primary goals, subsidiary goals, core interests, and so forth, is problematic. Perhaps by drawing seminal examples from the existing language (e.g., Clausewitz’s critical capabilities), Harrison could have eliminated this somewhat redundant terminology.

Anyone interested in strategy should read this book. For individuals new to strategy, it serves as a good primer, offering an approachable, understandable framework for strategic thinking. Even experienced readers might appreciate Harrison’s historical analysis of strategy in the introduction, his organizational scheme of inward- and outward-facing strategies, and his 3D approach. Strategic Thinking in 3D certainly warrants consideration for inclusion in the strategist’s tool box.

Lt Col Sean Kern, USAF

National Defense University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."