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Applying Military Strategy and Tactics to Business – Preamble

During the late 80s and early 90s, much of the predominant management philosophy involved directly applying classical military strategy to business.  Sun Tsu was regularly quoted at Board meetings and on Wall Street and books like On War and Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun were among the most popular business books available. 

At the time, I wasn’t a big subscriber to the idea that lessons from military conquests and failures could be readily applied to making a business successful.  Perhaps it was that I couldn’t get my head around morphing one of Sun Tsu’s many principles of warfare into something that I could adopt as a leader or manager . . .

“Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare.” – Sun Tsu, The Art of War

Huh? 

Maybe it was that the black and white nature of warfare, with real life death and destruction that made it difficult for me to draw comparisons with the gray-ness of business strategy and its inherently longer feedback loop.  Or, it could have been because mapping strategy directly to success or failure discounts the value of the quality of implementation.  As a strong believer in the power of strong management, I believe that top-notch execution often trumps good strategy.  As I see it, a good strategy poorly implemented will lose to a lesser strategy that is well implemented (that ought to elicit some strong opinions . . . ).

For whatever reasons I struggled with using centuries of military wisdom in conducting business in the past, my recent re-reading of excerpts from books by a few of the great military historians – B.H. Liddel Hart, Carl von Clausewitz and, of course, Sun Tsu, among others, has got me re-thinking about the application of what armies and empires have learned about beating the crap out of the other guy. 

Of course, from the cheap seats, anyone can read an excerpt from the writings by or about a great military strategist or tactician and come up with their very own way of applying it to their business.  Napoleon’s 35th military maxim is:

“Encampments of the same army should always be formed so as to protect each other.”

One might apply this maxim to business by translating it as: all of our products and services should be closely aligned and interconnected in some way, making it harder for our competition to pick off any one product or service.  Sounds reasonable.  Microsoft clearly does that with Office, an obviously successful implementation of this strategy.

But what if I interpret this to mean that I should build walls around my current products or services, focusing my energy on defending my current position instead of expanding aggressively?  It’s easy to see how this interpretation of Napoleon’s maxim could open me up to failure as it did when DEC refused to leave the VAX behind.  Both interpretations are reasonable, but one leads to a high likelihood of success and the other to a reasonable possibility of failure.

The problem, as I see it, is that even students of military history have difficulty determining what strategy or tactic to apply a priori in a military engagement, let alone while adapting it to its business application.  There are many examples in military history of a certain strategy being successful in one battle and failing miserably in another.  Sure, it’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback, but when the data is coming at you in real time, making the right call on what military strategy to use in your business is difficult and potentially dangerous.

So with the caveat of interpretation stated above, I’d like to present my summary of winning military strategies and tactics that businesses in today’s world of diminishing sustainable differentiation can use to help make them successful . . .

  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Indirect Approaches
  • Intelligence (knowledge of what’s going on)
  • Deception

Arguably, not nearly a complete list but, like I said earlier, it’s easy to map virtually any military strategy to any business strategy.  My goal here is to present the most obvious ones (to me) and to use examples of the use of the particularly military strategy in action and show how it applies to business.

My plan is to do a separate post for each one of these strategic areas to avoid this post from becoming exceedingly long and, probably, way too boring.

First up, Speed . . .

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  • Roman Rytov

    Hi Bill, Love your idea of finding analogies and parallels. For the matter you may be interested in “Marketing Warfare” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0070527261) by Al Ries. Very bright analogies and vivid examples. Waiting for other blogs in the series.

  • Roman Rytov

    Hi Bill,
    Love your idea of finding analogies and parallels. For the matter you may be interested in “Marketing Warfare” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0070527261) by Al Ries. Very bright analogies and vivid examples.
    Waiting for other blogs in the series.

  • Jason

    I think to apply military strategy to business you need both a fundamental understanding of both the strategy and business, and by that I mean practice.  I like Musashi’s book of five rings and I’ve read it many times over the years, but it was only when I turned 30 and had several years of real business experience that I was able to incorporate his writing into strategic planning.  By that time, I had memorized his ideas, read other people articulating his ideas in different ways, and saw opportunities to apply them through my work. “Large things are easy to observe.  Small things are difficult to observe.  That is to say it is difficult to actuate one’s will with a large number of people; it is difficult to know what is going on with one individual since the spirit of that individual can change so quickly.  Matters such as these ought to be considered.” –Miyamoto Musashi

  • Jason

    I think to apply military strategy to business you need both a fundamental understanding of both the strategy and business, and by that I mean practice.  I like Musashi’s book of five rings and I’ve read it many times over the years, but it was only when I turned 30 and had several years of real business experience that I was able to incorporate his writing into strategic planning.  By that time, I had memorized his ideas, read other people articulating his ideas in different ways, and saw opportunities to apply them through my work.

    “Large things are easy to observe.  Small things are difficult to observe.  That is to say it is difficult to actuate one’s will with a large number of people; it is difficult to know what is going on with one individual since the spirit of that individual can change so quickly.  Matters such as these ought to be considered.” –Miyamoto Musashi

  • Joe Brinkman

    The problem, as I see it, is not with a given strategy succeeding or failing, it is with reliance on a single strategy at the expense of all others.  Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, Napolean and others realized that the more winning success factors you could include in your overall battle plan, the higher the probability of success.  There is no guarantee, but you can greatly increase the odds of success.  The same holds true in the business world, or any other endeavor in life.

  • Joe Brinkman

    The problem, as I see it, is not with a given strategy succeeding or failing, it is with reliance on a single strategy at the expense of all others.  Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, Napolean and others realized that the more winning success factors you could include in your overall battle plan, the higher the probability of success.  There is no guarantee, but you can greatly increase the odds of success.  The same holds true in the business world, or any other endeavor in life.

  • Dave Jilk

    “There are many examples in military history of a certain strategy being successful in one battle and failing miserably in another.” This is true of purely business maxims and strategies as well.  For every wise saying or powerful strategy, there is someone who has been hugely successful applying the opposite.  Part of this is execution, as you point out.  But the experienced practitioner knows about both approaches and has developed *business judgment* that enables him to determine which is best in the current situation.

  • Dave Jilk

    “There are many examples in military history of a certain strategy being successful in one battle and failing miserably in another.”

    This is true of purely business maxims and strategies as well.  For every wise saying or powerful strategy, there is someone who has been hugely successful applying the opposite.  Part of this is execution, as you point out.  But the experienced practitioner knows about both approaches and has developed *business judgment* that enables him to determine which is best in the current situation.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Roman, I complete forgot about the Ries and Trout book.  You are absolutely right – it’s a fabulous book with solid examples of successes and failures in Marketing.  A must-have on the entrepreneurial bookshelf.  Not so much about military strategy, but treating business strategy as warfare. Great suggestion, thanks.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Roman,

    I complete forgot about the Ries and Trout book.  You are absolutely right – it’s a fabulous book with solid examples of successes and failures in Marketing.  A must-have on the entrepreneurial bookshelf.  Not so much about military strategy, but treating business strategy as warfare.

    Great suggestion, thanks.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Jason, I always found The Book of Five Rings hard to understand.  Perhaps, like you, I needed to dedicate more time and energy to it, rereading it several times.  I’m afraid I did not. I completely agree with your fundamental assertion, though, that it wisdom is required to apply any strategy or tactic with consistent (that is to say – not random) success.  Experience is not only the best teacher, but is the only truly valid teacher.  Anyone can copy what someone else does and sometimes run into a success.  It takes experience to make someone able to create success themselves. Thanks.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Jason,

    I always found The Book of Five Rings hard to understand.  Perhaps, like you, I needed to dedicate more time and energy to it, rereading it several times.  I’m afraid I did not.

    I completely agree with your fundamental assertion, though, that it wisdom is required to apply any strategy or tactic with consistent (that is to say – not random) success.  Experience is not only the best teacher, but is the only truly valid teacher.  Anyone can copy what someone else does and sometimes run into a success.  It takes experience to make someone able to create success themselves.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Joe Brinkman makes a terrific point that I failed to cover in my preamble – it’s not about applying a single strategy or tactic, it’s about maximizing the number of success factors in any engagement.  Too often people rely on a single idea or method to accomplish their goals.  It’s actually a combination of them that are required for success. Excellent point, Joe.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Joe Brinkman makes a terrific point that I failed to cover in my preamble – it’s not about applying a single strategy or tactic, it’s about maximizing the number of success factors in any engagement.  Too often people rely on a single idea or method to accomplish their goals.  It’s actually a combination of them that are required for success.

    Excellent point, Joe.

  • http://www.2-speed.com/ Will

    Dave Jilk again reminds me that it’s all about wisdom.  In his words, it’s a leader/manager’s experience which creates sound *business judgement* which ultimately gives them the ability to choose between various stratgeis and optimize their chances for success. Thanks, Dave.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    Dave Jilk again reminds me that it’s all about wisdom.  In his words, it’s a leader/manager’s experience which creates sound *business judgement* which ultimately gives them the ability to choose between various stratgeis and optimize their chances for success.

    Thanks, Dave.

  • http://www.heavenson.com The Art Of War

    Good read. I’m a bit predjudiced since I’m the publisher but I also highly recommend Thick Black Theory!