General BusinessLeadershipManagement

Applying Military Strategy and Tactics to Business – Focus

This is the third 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
  • Indirect Approaches
  • Intelligence (knowledge of what’s going on)
  • Deception

Today’s lesson . . . focus.


During Napoleon’s early campaigns, virtually all of which were successful, he used a set of 78 Maxims to guide him in battle (before he thought his armies were too big to be defeated).  Maxim XXIX stated:

“When you have resolved to fight a battle, collect your whole force. Dispense with nothing. A single battalion sometimes decides the day.”

Napoleon believed that it was nearly impossible to know what force, tactic or sub-strategy would determine the outcome of a specific battle.  Therefore, he always focused all of his forces on the attainment of a single goal – on winning the battle at hand.  The only time he split his forces was to use flanking maneuvers where part of his force would attack the enemy from another direction.  Even when this tactic was used, though, all of his forces were engaged in the single battle at hand with the common goal of winning that particular contest.  He didn’t hold men in reserve and he didn’t split his forces to fight in multiple, simultaneous engagements.

The same cannot be said for the British during the African Campaign in WWII  The British, who had recognized the strategic importance of Africa well ahead of the Germans, committed large forces and many tanks, guns and planes to the region to make sure that it remained in their control.  The Germans, although out-manned and out-gunned almost eradicated the British forces from Africa by taking advantage of a fundamental weakness in British military strategy – to hold some forces in reserve during a battle just in case they needed them later.  

This conservative British strategy of not committing all their energies to the task at hand meant that the Germans never had to engage the entire British force at any time and their inferiority of men and equipment didn’t come into play and thus, they almost wrested control of the continent from the British with many fewer resources.

During the civil war, George McClellan, first General in Chief of the Union Army, failed to convincingly defeat a much smaller and less-equipped Confederate force in many engagements.  This included missing a huge opportunity to take the Confederate capital, Richmond, during the first year of the war and, therefore, passing up an opportunity to bring the war to a close early in its execution.  McClellan almost never committed a large enough force to any engagement, choosing to leave behind many men to defend Washington (as commanded by Lincoln) and keeping even more in reserve and disengaged from any particular battle. 

There are dozens of examples throughout history of armies being defeated because forces were split for one reason or another.  Whether to fight a battle or war on too many fronts or to hold forces in reserve, too little of the available resources were applied to ensure victory.  Most often, it appears that the cause of these errors was ego and/or ignorance.  But sometimes the error lay in simply underestimating the effort required to be successful in any one arena.

With low barriers to entry in so many market segments these days, many companies assume that they can create any new product or service without too much trouble or expense (let’s build our own web browser!).  Funny enough, this might be true.  You may be able to address any new problem that you see potential customers having.  The problem is that while you can do anything, you simply can’t do everything.  Doing everything or, in fact, just doing multiple things, is the same as fighting a battle on multiple fronts – it’s not likely that you’ll succeed unless you have loads-o-resources.  Most small companies (or groups within larger ones) don’t, of course, and end up struggling when they lose their focus on their goal.

Saying focused is particularly difficult for startups which, by their very nature, have little momentum behind what they’re doing and, thus, a lot of flexibility.  Add to this the fact that the smart, hard-working people who found startups or join them near their inception are the kind of people that see opportunities all around them.  A new, exciting market niche here; weak competition there; unfulfilled customer need somewhere else.  It’s natural for this type of person in a startup environment to have difficulty staying the course, wanting to jump at every opportunity they see.

Focus not only involves trying not to bite off more than you can chew, but also not changing direction too frequently or haphazardly.  In a startup, it’s especially easy to get pulled in new directions daily as sales people feed back what they’re hearing, customers demand new functionality and advisors express their beliefs about what is right and wrong.  And, since many startups can actually turn on a dime, they often do just that.  Turning on that dime may be the right thing to do.  But companies or groups that do so frequently, are doomed to getting overrun by the competition.  It’s hard to do things well if what your target is a moving one.

This is not to say that adjusting goals and direction should be avoided completely.  It’s often necessary and smart to do so.  Such changes have to be made thoughtfully and carefully, though.  It should be difficult to change your focus at any time.  If it were easy, you weren’t focused enough.  If you choose to make a change, just make sure that everyone makes that change and is aligned with the same, unified goal.  Don’t split your forces, it’ll end in your defeat.

Why fight with one arm tied behind your back?  Commit everyone and everything to your goal and try to minimize changes to that goal.  Success is elusive enough, why compete with yourself by losing focus?  Concentrate all you energy and time on your goal and, like any consolidated, focused military effort, you’ll optimize your chances for success.

Disclaimer: I am not now nor have I ever been a military strategist.   Additionally, although I’ve spent many years of my career creating, refining and attempting to lead others in the execution of business strategy, I’m sure that some (likely, those closest to me) would also question my abilities as a business strategist. 

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  1. I use more colorful names (that I obtained elsewhere) for the two variants of losing focus. “Boil The Ocean” is a strategy where you are trying to do way too much. “Idea d’jour” is a strategy where the focus changes frequently. Sometimes they’re combined in that the Idea d’jour is viewed as a justifiable tactic within the larger Boil the Ocean strategy.

  2. I use more colorful names (that I obtained elsewhere) for the two variants of losing focus.

    “Boil The Ocean” is a strategy where you are trying to do way too much.

    “Idea d’jour” is a strategy where the focus changes frequently.

    Sometimes they’re combined in that the Idea d’jour is viewed as a justifiable tactic within the larger Boil the Ocean strategy.

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