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
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 . . .
- Indirect Approaches
- Intelligence (knowledge of what’s going on)
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 . . .