In my last post, the first in a series on applying military strategy and tactics to business, I presented my thoughts about how difficult I believe it is to apply strategies gleaned from well-publicized military campaigns directly to business situations. Part of the problem is simply that the field of battle is very different from the business environment. Perhaps the bigger problem, though, is that understanding what a military commander chose to do in a particular engagement does not mean that the leader or manager knows in what situation to apply that knowledge. There are many examples of a particular military strategy working in one circumstance and failing miserably in another similar one. How do you know what to do and when to do it?
This point was driven home in several of the excellent comments to the previous post. Readers claimed that the success or failure of a strategy has more to do with the wisdom of the person implementing it and the implementation of multiple successful strategies than it does with any one strategy itself. I couldn’t agree more.
That said, there’s no point in throwing the baby out with the bath water. I believe that one of the best ways to learn anything (aside from hacking at the problem yourself and seeing what fails and succeeds), is to leach off the wisdom of others. Stories, analogies and parallels between ones current situation and what others did in similar situations is a great start for thinking about how to address an opportunity or problem. In this light, stories of military successes and failures are great teachers. Not so much in directly applying what any military leader did at some time, but in presenting a palette of potential actions. 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. I’ll try to toss in a few military stories, too, that indicate to me why these particular lessons are so important and can be readily applied to business. These lessons are:
- Indirect Approaches
- Intelligence (knowledge of what’s going on)
I’ll cover each one in a separate post. Today’s lesson . . . speed.
There are very few examples of successful military campaigns waged slowly.
American Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the first students of mobile warfare, consistently defeated opposing Union generals even though he was almost always outnumbered and out-gunned. His strategy – speed. He is known for getting to battles days before the Union armies expected his arrival – driving men and horses virtually 24 hours a day in order to create a surprise attack. Forrest rarely lost in battle as a result of his use of speed. He called his strategy: “get there fustest [sic] with the mostest.”
Roughly 75 years later, in 1939, the German Army started its sweep across Europe with its invasion of Poland. It moved so swiftly across the continent that it caught other countries ill-prepared and unable to mobilize forces or infrastructure to defend themselves. The Germans use of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, allowed them to stay mobile and to avoid becoming entrenched in one place as all the armies in WWI had. This strategy and, of course, the preparations to implement a strategy of speed, made the German army vastly superior to the other armies of Europe and, ultimately, more successful in it’s initial engagements.
Like armies, companies that stay flexible and move quickly hugely increase their likelihood of success. This is, of course, true in terms of markets – getting products and services that people really want or need to market first is almost always a winning strategy – but it may be even more important in terms of the culture it creates inside a company. When your employees are flexible and innovative, moving quickly to take on the next challenge, they will all be driving for success and well-prepared to quickly respond to any surprises that arise from the competition.
One of the reasons that speed works is that many companies are afraid of it and thus, don’t employ it as a strategy. It is, therefore, likely that your competition is afraid of speed. Or, at least, more afraid of it than you are. It feels much safer to move slowly, after all. But it isn’t. Slow companies are exposed to attack from all directions and once attacked, often don’t have the ability to defend themselves, let alone go on the offensive. Road kill.
In my experience, speed has also shown its value in another critical way – by minimizing the impact of execution errors. Any business is going to have some execution errors. If the business is plodding along, though, small mistakes in tactics can cause huge, unrecoverable problems. If the business is moving quickly, though, most execution errors become mere bumps in the road. The flexibility of the organization can absorb them and continue to move forward with small changes in strategy or tactics. This, in fact, may be the greatest advantage of employing speed as a strategy.
For business, as with the military, speed is your friend – keep the pedal to the metal.
Next up . . . focus.