Playing To Win

Business Strategy and/or Military Strategy?

Mining the Philosophical Nuggets

Sources: Roger L. Martin and Unknown Artist licensed by Creative Commons

Because I get so many questions about the applicability of military strategy to business strategy. I think it is an issue worthy of further exploration, so, I have decided to dedicate my 10th Year II Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece to Business Strategy and/or Military Strategy? You can find all previous PTW/PI here.

The Stereotype

There are a few aspects of the stereotype of military strategy to explore to discern its true applicability to business strategy. The first is that military strategy is a bloody and purely zero-sum, win-lose exercise. The second is that in military strategy, soldiers are expendable, disposable products whose demise serves a broader purpose. The third is that it is a totally command-and-control environment: Ours is not to reason why, ours is just to do or die.

This stereotype leaves people wondering whether any association with military strategy is warranted and places military strategy in the politically incorrect space.

A More Nuanced View

I try to take a more nuanced view of the world of military strategy to mine the most useful nuggets for my work on business strategy. On that front, I think of the greatest and most impactful military minds as military philosophers more so than military strategists. So, I don’t take their advice literally as I step back and try to understand and apply their broader philosophies. The two to whom that I pay most attention are Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz — which by the way doesn’t make me unique in any way. Both wrote persuasively and accessibly and are probably the most read military strategists. I resonate with their broader philosophic writings on how to think about conflict, not details about war itself. I find that in general, I learn more about business from philosophers in other disciplines — like Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, Aristotle, Dewey, Peirce and Popper — than from management theorists.

I would argue that here are at least three important attributes to a more nuanced view of the contribution of military strategy to business strategy.

First, I like that the great military thinkers did not love war or think of it as a simple, zero-sum game. For example, from Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” In business strategy, I don’t enjoy beating the crap out of an opponent. I don’t like wounded/dead bodies or written-off capital. Like Sun Tzu, I like figuring out how to not have to fight. Of course, you must sometimes fight — but you should only engage in a bloody battle when genuinely provoked. And certainly, the military strategists argued for brutal efficiency when they deemed it necessary, so their thoughts should not be sugar coated. But I liked the Cuban Missile Crisis because there wasn’t a single shot fired while I didn’t like the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of the level of absolute devastation involved in pursuing the military goal.

In fact, you have to start thinking about peace before you even initiate battle. Again, from Sun Tzu “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare,” and “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” The art in business strategy is to find a way to get your desired positioning and have your competitors largely satisfied with theirs — to create as positive-sum a game as circumstances allow. If competitors aren’t reasonably contented, you will suffer from the prolonged warfare that Sun Tzu warns against.

Second, I think the great military strategists did anything but treat their soldiers as expendable. From Sun Tzu: “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” It is the polar opposite of the Robert McNamara-led prosecution of the Vietnam war. His strategy involved treating soldiers as disposable products. I think extremely highly of business leaders. But I would never put one in charge of the military. Military leaders need to be steeped entirely in the history of combat — and its terrible consequences. Perhaps McNamara was — but it sure didn’t appear that way.

Third, military strategy isn’t about command and control. There is full and explicit recognition that real choices need to be made on the battlefield, during the battle itself. There has to be a clear statement by the battlefield commander of his (and now at least sometimes — her) intent. But there is an explicit understanding that many more real choices have to be made consistent with but not predetermined by that statement of intent.

I learned this about the military in 2010 when I was asked to do a review of the effort by the US Army, which began in 2006, to incorporate design thinking into its core doctrine for battlefield command, which is summarized in the bland sounding but critically important “Field Manual 5.0: Army Planning and Orders Production,” the Bible of battlefield commanders. I had low expectations going in — influenced by the stereotype — but was blown away by the sophistication of the thinking.

In business strategy, (what I think of as) the insipid view dominates that the business equivalent of the battlefield commander sets strategy and then the rank and file execute. The US Army is far, far more sophisticated than that. Battlefield commanders set an intent and an approach to achieving that intent. But they fully expect the officers and soldiers serving under their command to have to make critical decisions on the battlefield as their work proceeds. They aren’t expected to simply execute — because that would be stupid.

In fact, the more elite the unit — think Navy Seals or Special Air Service or Sayeret Matkal — the more recognition there is that they are not just executing, they are making critical choices as the landscape unfolds in unpredictable ways. So, the view of the military is utterly consistent with my unpopular view that referring to what the vast majority of people in any business do as ‘execution’ is both grossly wrong and insulting.

The Two Things I Particularly Like about Military Strategy

First, in the military, strategy is serious business. In the business world, a prominent view holds that a mediocre strategy well-executed will trump a great strategy poorly executed, which suggests that a mediocre strategy is just fine as long as you ‘execute’ it. The military doesn’t believe or teach such drivel because so many soldiers die needlessly following mediocre strategies. Instead, the military holds that you need a great strategy and then an operating system that encourages the best battlefield adjustments possible. If it was paying attention, the business world would get as serious about strategy as is the military.

Second, there is an understanding that military strategy requires a holistic view, something that von Clausewitz emphasizes: “In war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.” Business, which has spent the last half-century creating siloed organizations staffed with narrow specialists, should take von Clausewitz’s admonition more seriously than it currently does.

One Shortcoming of Military Strategy

Military strategy has one significant drawback that must be taken into account in its application to business strategy. Military strategy is centrally about only two of the three major pieces of the generic strategy puzzle: company and competitors. It concerns us — our desires, goals, intentions, and capabilities — and the opponent — their desires, goals, intentions, and capabilities. There really isn’t the third piece, customers, in the picture.

The implicit assumption is that the customer wants you to win — either by repulsing a dangerous invader or conquering a desirable territory. That is it. The customer’s desires don’t need to be understood more thoroughly than that. Their satisfaction doesn’t need to be measured. They will be appreciative if we do our job. To be fair, von Clausewitz gets at the customer a bit when he says: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics has clear customers that need serving: the electorate.

Hence, this is one respect in which I find folks from the military generally need rounding out. That having been said, it is far from an undoable task. One of the very greatest consumerists that I have ever watched in action during my career has been former P&G CEO AG Lafley — who began his career in the US Navy before going to Harvard Business School and then becoming a business icon. I think he would say if asked that becoming customer-oriented is aided by military training that helps you focus on what is important in any context.

Practitioner Insight

There is lots of value for business strategy that can be gleaned from military strategy, even if you don’t like the thought of the military or war. I would highly recommend Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and von Clausewitz’s On War to every business strategist who hasn’t already read both. If you enjoy them and find them valuable, there is almost an infinite supply of further reading.

If you fear that reading military strategy will make you more belligerent, I can assure you it won’t. It is most likely to make you more thoughtful and nuanced. It will help you invest in determining the cleverest ways to avoid bloody battles while accomplishing your goals. It will help you focus on the overall campaign, not on individual battles, or even parts of battles. In your prioritization, it will elevate the seriousness of strategy, that it is unconscionable to go into battle without a thoroughly considered strategy. And it is equally unconscionable to fail to equip your colleagues to make critical choices when your strategy encounters uncooperative competition, as it inevitably does.

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.