On the Law of Conservation of Strategy

Time fixes all strategic problems

In the midst of this week’s royal storm, Prince Harry mentioned something that’s been uttered, acknowledged, and forgotten at one point or another by every single other human being on this blue dot.

“Time heals all things, hopefully.”

Right you are Harry. No need to add “hopefully” though. Because time does fix all strategic problems. Eventually.

Why? 

The conditions that gave rise to the problem fade away. The context changes. The core problem may remain, but the setting shifts. Like the way the scenery changes in a ballet, the background gets replaced even if the dancers look the same. 

Like Harry’s royal predicament. There wasn’t one problem raised in that interview that cannot be conquered by the passage of time. 

Or, consider Canada, the country Harry and Meghan jumped to when they first left the UK. A century ago, almost to the day, Canada was so sure of future trouble they developed a pre-emptive war plan to actively defend against a future American attack.

The Canadians’ shelved that plan in favor of what some might call a different philosophy: “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, then beat ‘em later.” Canada and the US are now joined at the hip, in nearly all ways, from economical to telephonical. Canadians have recently dominated the entire spectrum of the American culture checklist—from books to television to music to sports. And the future looks bright up North—Stanford’s Marshall Burke estimates Canadian per capita GDP will grow two and a half times richer in the warming world we expect to come. 

Sure, Canada could’ve attacked south a hundred years ago. But sometimes scrapping the war plan in favor of waiting is the better way.

In nature, we call this “playing dead,” a method of “weaponized passivity.” Holding on until the picture changes. 

In games, this may be why so many like to point out that the Chinese play “Go” while many other countries play chess. By incrementally changing the context one piece at a time, you can put your opponent in a very different position in the long-run. 

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Strategists should always pre-check their work to ensure they don’t waste precious effort dealing with self-solving problems. 

It keeps you from breaking the Law of Conservation of Strategy, which recognizes the number of problems in life is infinite, but the energy available to deal with those problems is finite.

So we’ve got to choose well which challenges to take on. We must only engage the problems we have the energy required to fix. 

That’s why it’s so important to recognize that time can do some of the work for you. Time renders all strategic problems moot, because as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, in the long run we’re all dead anyways.

Want the Koreas to unite? Time will solve.

Want that girl to notice you? Time will solve.

Want a new, exciting job? Time will solve. 

Want nukes abolished? Time will solve. 

A time-centric view of strategy helps because what we’re really talking about is speed and who gets to decide. If we choose to orient ourselves toward success, what we really want is to speed up our preferred outcome.

But, if you’re willing to wait awhile, and you don’t mind giving up some control—some scenarios will bend your way in the long run. 

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There’s a downside. Patience enables weaker ideas to persist out of sheer stubbornness. I once worked with a guy who kept a list of his former commanders on the wall with bold, black lines struck through all of them, like trophies on a hunter’s wall. The unsubtle message: I’ve outlasted them all.

Champion bureaucrats know what the Taliban does—time can be a weapon. This is how bureaucracies win. They wait. They don’t out-fight you, they out-wait you.

Another downside is that time doesn’t care about you. If you choose non-engagement, you give up some “say” in the outcome, and so time may render a judgment you don’t like. 

Then again, that’s life. Some aspects of complex human affairs are simply beyond our control. 

Always fall back on the simplest test questions. What can I change? What must I change? Pre-check before you act. And then spend your energy with care, because the Law of Conservation of Strategy demands it.

When you’re not sure if you can wait, when you go a little wobbly about holding off, look to Harry, Meghan, and (Oh) Canada for inspiration. They’re doing just fine. 

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*Afterthoughts: “While we should always aim for some desired objective, some better state, we should do so with modest expectations that explicitly acknowledge the practice of strategy is never final and always uncertain.”

“It’s almost banal to point out, but, any definition or way of articulating strategy must have at its core a deep consideration of the adversary (and interactions with that adversary). Anything less is professional narcissism.” (ML Cavanaugh, “It’s Time to End the Tyranny of Ends, Ways, and Means”)

*Editor’s Note:  Readers, thanks for your feedback! Next week I’ll likely slash away at meaningful risk versus calculated risk.

And, as always, what do you think about today’s topic? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward Strategy Notes on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt