Business Lessons from Military Strategy

Business lessons from military strategy can guide usIt’s always exciting to debut a new lecture, and today in Philadelphia I unveiled a new seven-hour seminar for business executives.

Three months in the crafting, the Great Battles seminar had its germination in the suggestion by one of my colleagues.

He had hired me to deliver my earlier lecture series on Competitive Intelligence, which used historical military examples and multimedia, and thought that a full-blown seminar focused on the nexus between business strategy and military strategy might be well-received.

Why not offer a seminar on business lessons from military strategy?

Why not, indeed.

And so I did.

I believe it was received well, and what follows is the gist of this powerful offering . . .

War, Conflict . . . and Business

In business, we have adopted the language of war and of conflict.

We talk of market penetration . . .  we counterattack a competitor . . . we out-flank our opponents . . . we get ambushed in office meetings . . . we form alliances and we battle against alliances . . . we conduct “hasty retreats” when facing a superior foe . . . we “make peace” with our enemies.

And we craft our strategy for our next campaign.

Perhaps it’s only natural that we should speak this way.  Ours is a world of conflict and cooperation.  And sometimes the cooperation seems only a prelude to conflict.

But rather than simply adopting the machismo of war-words, we can go beyond the surface similarities.  We can study and learn something about planning and executing business strategy from the actual techniques of martial combat.  Here, we look at some of the tactical techniques utilized by the military and codified in military manuals worldwide.

Some of techniques of maneuver and attack are familiar to most people.  Others are not so well-known.  The best strategic maneuver, of course, is one that Sun Tzu recommended more than 2,000 years ago.  Sun Tzu urged us to consider techniques that would yield bloodless victories.

He said:  “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Few of us are blessed with the kind of acumen or situation that affords us the luxury to win without battle.

And so we must suffice with techniques that can yield victory, if applied judiciously and the proper place and time.

We must suffice with  business lessons from military strategy.

Circumspection a Must

But we must be circumspect and shrewd.

We must observe certain principles, and the hallmark of a sound principle is its successful application, across time, to situations in which the terms and technology may change, but the principle still holds true.

Principles serve as a north star to guide us, to keep us going in the right direction.  In conflict situations, The Principles of War offer us guiding ideas for executing any strabusiness lessons from military strategy and great battles of historytegy against a determined opponent – Objective, Offensive, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Mass, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity.  If the point is to learn how to think strategically . . . to exert a measure of control over a chaotic world and sometimes hostile world.

All smart and successful organizations make use of war principles but call them something else.  So let’s do call them “Principles of Competition” . . . because they can be utilized by anyone involved in any conflict, great or small . . . they can be used at the organizational level . . . and they can be used at the personal level.

Many countries and many theorists have devised principles of war over the centuries.  This noble and venerable lineage stretches back to the time of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Vegetius, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Jomini, Foch, and many other notables.

But regardless of the time and place and personality, the principles have always retained a sameness . . . They may change at the periphery, but they maintain a steadfast core character.

Principles of Competition

For this seminar, we appropriate for ourselves a set of Principles of War distilled by British Colonel John Frederick Charles Fuller during World War One and into the mid-1920s and adopted almost immediately in a slightly different form, by the United States military.  These are principles that had been handed down less formally for centuries.

The lessons learned on the battlefield can help us in the boardroom and they can help us compete effectively against a determined and equally capable competitor.

In this seminar, we examine business lessons from the great battles of history – General Pagondas at Delium in 424 BC, Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC, Lee at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1863, Zulu Chief Cetshwayo at Isandlwana in 1879, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of France in 1940, the Battle of Kursk in 1943, Israel’s Raid on Entebbe in 1976, and the First Gulf War, among others.

Was today’s seminar delivered with elan and panache?  With brio?

Was it an especially powerful presentation?

One hopes, and we’ll see.

The jury is still out on this one and we await the verdict.