This is the fourth of a six-post series that discusses how, when, why and why not apply military strategy and tactics to business. For the sake of some brevity, I won’t repeat my introduction to this topic but, if you’re interested, you can find it here in the preamble. There are also a few more introductory words in the second post, here.
In short, I’ve always had a difficult time mapping military strategy to business, although I’ve always been compelled to. It seems so natural to take stories of great military exploits and use what was learned from them to advance a business idea or improve on its execution. Among the many problems in doing this, though, are questions about when to apply a particular strategy; does the organization have the competence to execute against that strategy; and can one correctly interpret what actually made a particular military strategy or tactic successful, especially once applied in a business context with its inherently slower feedback.
That said, the legends of military successes and failures are great teachers. Not so much for the direct application of what a military leader did at some time, but in presenting a palette of potential actions. The stories and analogies are also good because they are easy to remember and are great tools for leading others.
In my view, there are a small set of profound lessons to be learned from the great military commanders and their exploits through the ages of warfare. Lessons is the key term here, not specific strategies or tactics. In my effort to communicate what I believe that some of these lessons are, I’ll try to toss in a few military stories that indicate to me why these particular lessons are so important and can be readily applied to business. The lessons are:
- Speed (covered previously)
- Focus (covered previously)
- Indirect Approaches (covered previously)
Today’s episode of applying military strategy and tactics to business is . . .
Among Webster’s definitions for intelligence, two primary ones directly apply to both military and business matters: 1) you need to be smart or, at least, be able to think and, 2) you need to have knowledge of what the enemy/competition knows and thinks.
Main Entry: inÂ·telÂ·liÂ·gence
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin intelligentia, from intelligent-, intelligens intelligent
- The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; also : the skilled use of reason. The ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria.
- Information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area; also : an agency engaged in obtaining such information.
In military engagements, intelligence is often more important than the size of the force, how well it’s armed and who it is led by.
A perfect example of this is in the military strategies employed by Mao Zedong as he led the Red Army in its 20+ year rebellion against the Kuomintang government in China. After the start of the rebellion, the Red Army, for the most part, got it’s butt kicked whenever and where-ever it engaged the vastly superior government army forces. For the most part, the Red Army was out-manned, had many fewer weapons and was isolated into parts of the country that made it difficult to get tactical advantage in widespread warfare.
Recognizing his deficiencies, Mao turned to strategies that involved actively collecting intelligence about his opponent. He had spies throughout the government who gathered information about their plans and actions. Perhaps even more importantly, he designated soldiers dressed in civilian clothing to be stationed throughout the country to monitor the movement of the government’s troops and supplies. By gathering this information and extracting trends from it, he learned what his opponent was doing and, over time, understood what type of moves that they made in response to his own. Ultimately, having this knowledge, Mao was able to gain the upper hand and to ultimately defeat the government troops, exiling Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan in 1949.
Prior to World War II, while most of the rest of the world was relatively ignorant to the value of keeping secrets, well . . . secret, the Germans invested heavily in cryptography. The efforts of the German government and military agencies to make sure that communications were secure resulted in the adoption of the Enigma Cipher machine – an electro-mechanical device that encoded and decoded messages. The German Navy, in particular, relied heavily on the secrecy of their communications and had the most complex Enigma machines and processes surrounding them.
It took years for Germany’s enemies to break the Enigma. The huge value in breaking the code was well understood, though, and a concerted effort was mounted to break to do so as part of the strategy to defeat the Germans. At first the Polish made headway, then the British took over the main effort. Through the work of a huge number of scientists and mathematicians, mostly stationed at the famous Bletchley Park in England, and a stolen Enigma machine here and there, the Allies were able to read many of the top-secret messages being sent by the Germans. Using this information, the Allies were able to change their tactics and even much of their strategy in the battle of the Atlantic. Each action took on more significance with less effort. The knowledge of what the enemy was going to do let the Allies stay one step ahead and to focus their efforts on the singular end goal of winning battles, without having to spread their forces out too far.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you engage in any kind of industrial espionage. Merely that knowing what your competition is up to is critical to your business or, at the very least, critical to how you run your business. Spies aren’t required. You just need to be aware. Your sales channel will be able to tell what’s going on (if it’s not a completely automated channel) and anyone that engages with your customers will discover what the competition is doing if they listen well.
If you’re among the group of people that claims to have no competition – WAKE UP! Every business has at least one competitor, even if it’s the choice your customer has to keep doing what they’re doing. The infinitely low barriers to entry in virtually all product or service areas these days also guarantees that you’ll have more competitors in the near future if your target market has any real value. There’s simply no excuse for not knowing what your current and emerging competition is up to. This knowledge not only helps you differentiate your product or service right out of the gate, but also helps you keep your costs lower because you waste less time with a more focused approach.
Of course, no business that just focuses on what their competitors are doing is going to be successful. True success can only come from using the other kind of intelligence – that which only comes from using your head. In my experience (and I’m at least as guilty as anyone I’ve ever known) there are too-many knee-jerk reactions in business. Managers often make quick decisions in a situation without extensive knowledge of what is really going on. In an environment where everything is moving fast, it’s a natural mistake to make. Additionally, the fear of the consequences of not answering a challenge or looking like one is in control often encourages half-baked reactions.
Every manager needs to keep in mind the value of looking before they leap. Or, as I like to think about it – responding instead of reacting. The difference between responding and reacting is thinking – one involves it, the other doesn’t. I know, I know, this is where you’re saying to yourself: “I don’t have time for long, drawn-out planning sessions. My business is go, go, go and if I slow down, I’m dead.” In most cases, taking a step back, drawing some pictures on a white board, talking to a few people or getting together with your team to ponder the paths ahead only involves hours or perhaps a few days. Not weeks and months. Of course, at times, it does take longer. In my experience, though, whatever it takes to make an informed (note that I say informed – not perfect or correct or even low-risk) decision on how to respond to the challenge that you face is worthwhile and will save you loads of time and energy later. Think about the situation, at least a little, then move. Don’t move slowly, but move deliberately.
As with successful military campaigns, the more intelligence you have – both kinds – the more likely it is that you’ll set your business on the best possible path to success. Increased knowledge of what your competition is up to and, more importantly, considered thought put in to your overall strategy and to any response to changes improves your likelihood of success while helping to reduce effort that might be wasted in areas unnecessary or even unrelated to the optimal path of the business
Next up, the final installment in this series: Deception.