Does the military have anything to teach us about strategy?

I’m going to level with you here, I’ve not actually read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

I know, I know, what kind of strategist am I?  A pretty poorly read one, truth be told.  I did not learn my craft “top down”, through careful study of canonical texts and Harvard Business Review papers, but rather “bottom up”, through experience, observation, and noticing patterns.

Aside from laziness, I promise you there is a benefit to this informal approach.  It allows me to arrive at similar conclusions others have before, but using different articulation.  This is important, because new ways of describing ideas can open those ideas up to new people.  I’m not trying to write papers for an MBA course here, they’ve got enough fodder, so I try not to sink too deeply into that classical world.

However, when it comes to The Art of War in particular, there is another reason I’ve avoided it and that is this:

War and business aren’t the same thing.

That’s stating the obvious, clearly, but what I mean more specifically is that they aren’t dynamically the same thing.  Techniques that work in one field don’t scan to the other – despite there being an entire industry of books, speakers, anecdotes and analogies that say otherwise.

The reason for this is simple: war is zero sum, but business generally is not.  On the battlefield you have two armies, each plotting the destruction of the other, with the winner being the last left standing.  But in the marketplace that almost never happens.  A much better analogy here is a natural ecosystem, with a multitude of parties co-existing in a symbiotic manner.

Put bluntly, you’re not going to “kill” your competitor; you’re just going to share territory in a hopefully profitable and sustainable way.  Thus any literature which doesn’t point at this outcome is always going to be a bit misleading.

Still, while I stand by this view, I’d certainly never claim that you can’t learn anything from these texts, providing they’re taken with a pinch of salt.  And I was reminded of this the other day when I saw this quote from another historical strategic bigwig, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz:

“Simplicity in planning fosters energy in execution.  Strong determination in carrying through a simple idea is the surest route to success.  The winning simplicity we seek, the simplicity of genius, is the result of intense mental engagement.”

Now at first glance this is just another of those empty-sounding strategic truisms.  Blah blah “simplicity” blah blah “execution” etc.  Kind of goes in one ear and out the other.  And yet, when we remember its military context, we can find another layer of subtlety there.

Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to be a general.  It’s the ultimate “people management” challenge.  Think you find it hard to manage yourteam?  What if there were 100,000 of them, mostly uneducated, no modern communication tools, and they were all scared shitless of dying.  Three-sixty performance reviews aren’t quite going to cut it there.

Because of this, someone like von Clausewitz understands something a lot of founders and CEOs don’t:

Getting your team to execute as a unit is more important than what they actually execute.

Notice his key phrases there: “energy in execution”, “strong determination”.  These are the strategic outputs he values.  Not “what’s the cleverest plan”, but rather “what plan will everyone get behind”.

I believe this insight has profound business implications.

We can be seduced into thinking that plans are either factually “right” or “wrong”; that the right one will succeed and the wrong one will fail.  Whilst this is definitely somewhat true, it isn’t the whole story.  We should also think of plans as being “potent” or “impotent”.

Potent plans are those which:

  • Everyone understands
  • Can’t be lost in translation
  • Are intuitively easy to execute
  • Are inspiring and motivating

Impotent plans are those which:

  • Are complex
  • Can be interpreted in different ways
  • Have to be thought about to execute
  • Are a bit dry or boring

Can a plan be both right and impotent?  Definitely.  In fact that’s probably the most common type of plan.  And equally a plan can be wrong and potent too.

The implication of von Clausewitz’s quote is that the latter of these may often be superior to the former, because at least it will be suffused with energy and will.  Provided it isn’t flat out stupid those qualities will probably be enough to produce good results – or at least better results than intelligent impotency.

A helpful way to think about it perhaps is to imagine strategy not as a “clever plan”, but rather as a “leadership tool”.  The path to producing it should be clever, that’s for sure.  As he says in his quote, “the simplicity of genius is the result of intense mental engagement”.  But the final judgement criteria shouldn’t be about that – it should be about whether it has the power to rally the troops.

Have you ever encountered a strategy which gets the team “pumped”?  No?  Then maybe you’ve never really encountered a strategy.

Military strategists may not understand market dynamics.  But they do understand what strategies are made of.  Not brains, data, and analytics, but blood, bone, and adrenaline.

Luckily nobody’s going to die if we forget this.  But maybe let’s try to remember anyway.

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