Christoph Lohr: Business and military strategy in times of chaos
The entire concept of business strategy derives from military strategy.
We are living in chaotic times. The current COVID-19 crisis has quickly turned from a health risk to an economically challenging one. Many businesses have been caught unprepared in the storm, and layoffs, furloughs and bankruptcy have followed suit. The only thing that currently seems certain is uncertainty, disruptive change, fleeting opportunities and incomplete information. How can businesses deal with this?
In the past, based on my experiences, I’ve always pointed to the military for examples of leadership and strategy, especially considering the word “strategy” derives from the Greek word “strategos,” which is what Greek generals were called. The entire concept of business strategy derives from military strategy. Today’s challenges are no different and it is well worth our effort to study military history to understand how to move forward.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources out there to help us on our journey. A few that I have found to be helpful can be found below:
HBR article: “Maneuver Warfare: Can Modern Military Strategy Lead You to Victory?” For those of us in need of a quick introduction of military strategy concepts, I’d recommend a very interesting article from Harvard Business Review. In this article, the authors, Eric K. Clemons and Jason A. Santamaria discuss how targeting critical vulnerabilities, boldness, surprise, focus, decentralized decision making, rapid tempo and combined resources can all lead to breakthroughs in business. Read it here: https://bit.ly/2zlQaUn.
Book: “Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business.” I just finished this book by Chet Richards and it is now in my top five favorite business books of all time, if not my favorite book. It’s a quick read at only 171 pages, but full of numerous historical references and business articles to go back and read. The main concept of John Boyd via Chet Richards for organizational success is mutual trust, intuitive feel, mission contract and focus/direction. Historically speaking, when these four concepts have merged, smaller armies have beaten larger armies time and time again, against the odds. The same goes with business too. Mr. Richards dives into some incredibly insightful business examples of Honda, Toyota, IBM and Southwest Airlines, among others to reinforce these points. Find it here: https://amzn.to/2L8beQY.
Thought leader: Kevin Black (Forbes Coach Council). I’ve been fortunate to know Kevin Black for years, and consider him a friend. Mr. Black, a former Army officer who served in Iraq, has taken his knowledge from the military and has been bringing his experience to the business world. For years, he’s been talking about the “emergent leader” and “managing chaos.” Seems rather timely. Mr. Black’s paradigm revolves around four critical components: Identity, knowing your natural behaviors; mastering competencies, thinking, communication, planning and execution to manage chaos; being able to manage complex systems under friction and fog of war and ensuring a culture of success; not of entitlement. Mr. Black is currently finishing his upcoming book “Managing Chaos” and also recently joined the Forbes Coaches Council. You can follow Mr. Black via these links to get updated information: https://bit.ly/35ATRSo, https://bit.ly/2YF8jY7 and https://bit.ly/3b5UcgR.
What’s interesting to me about all of the above resources, and the others that I have read that focus on military strategy, is that for business, keys to an overarching strategy with military concepts focuses on the following:
- Trust needs to be a cornerstone of culture within the organization. The second important thing is an emphasis of success, but trust is initial key;
- Speed (the faster the better) in the right direction is more important than accuracy;
- Focusing resources whether initially or through process of developing information; and
- Delegating decisions down to the lowest level.
- During the course of my career, the general consensus of when I have brought these concepts up is that military strategy doesn’t relate to business; this thought process is wrong. Business strategy extends directly from military strategy — as Mr. Richards put so eloquently:
“One problem may be that some who study military strategy fail to deal with the nature of business, with its multiplicity of competitors, legal requirements such as detailed financial reporting, loose definition of ‘victory,’ and most frustrating, the impossibility of attacking competitors directly. Such misconceptions have led to the claim that although strategy is fine for war, it has little to do with the problems of running a business. I propose to resurrect business strategy by returning to a form of conflict that is simple in abstract, war. Business will not be able to use the specific tactics, principles, or strategies of war since these are designed to destroy adversaries – morally and mentally if possible, physically if necessary – and not attract customers. War strategies, however, rest on a deeper foundation of people working together under stress and uncertainty, and good ones shape the terms of the conflict to their liking before combat begins. Such an environment describes modern business, and strategies on this foundation will work as well for business as for war.”