Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Business, sports and war: can we use analogues?

A comment dismissing military analogues from business thinking at George Stalk Jr's article (see previous blog entry) made me write this post.

It is our opinion that direct comparisons from military or sports are mostly meaningless in business contexts, except where they are used as metaphors to aid understanding. Even then, there is an evident risk that the listener interprets the metaphor too literally or doesn't understand it at all (for example, I fail to understand a lot of metaphors involving baseball). This is the major danger in reading classic books of military strategy - say, Sun Tzu's Art of War, or von Clausewitz's On War.

If the reader thinks only about tactics and manouvers, she has failed to think about underlying issues that are common in all competitive situations.

Competitive situations - that is the key. Although athletic, military and business conflicts are played out in completely different landscapes, with very different motives, and totally different resources, they all involve competition against and often include cooperation with other humans. The major difference is that business has more win-win outcomes, whereas sports and war tend to be zero-sum games, but even this delineation is not exact. There are business situations which are zero-sum games (competition in stable markets) and sports events which have win-win outcomes (some "ladder" type leagues, where "giving" points to opposing player might help at the long run, for example by blocking more fearsome team from play-offs).

If one concentrates on what are needed for success in all of these activities, I suspect that faster decision making - OODA loop, in fact - surfaces at some point. Some other principles that I suspect, but cannot yet prove (that's why we're having this blog) include

-using strength against weakness, instead of strength, and going where the competition isn't
-doing what the opponent is not expecting, and being able to rapidly change posture from obvious to unobvious (ch'i/cheng or Fast Asymmetric Transient)
-the importance of situational awareness

...and so forth. John R. Boyd and his disciples nailed these principles of winning in competitive situations; that they were derived from the study of military history isn't relevant to the discussion. What we in this blog are interested in is how to apply these findings to business; we know what needs to happen, now we need to find out how to make that happen.

However, a word of warning for all Boyd and competitive strategy enthusiasts: if you refer to military strategy or terminology the odds are that your message is misunderstood. Much of this is simply because words "military" and "strategy" connotates something destructive, violent and undesirable; business is not war, and your listeners do not want it to be. As a result, they tend to focus on details and not on the message.

One example from a small workshop I delivered to product development students and specialists at Helsinki University of Technology: I was lecturing on the possibility of using "decision-making exercises" (see Gary Klein's books Sources of Power and Power of Intuition) as a way to give product designers more decision-making practice. In my lecture material/further reading list, I had included U.S. Marine Corps "MCDP-1 Warfighting" as a reference, both because I had referred to the military as one early user of decision making exercises, and as a freely available example of mission-type orders and the importance of quick decision making.

Now bear in mind that this was in Finland, where 80-90% of males go through military service and probably a majority of those present in the class were reserve officers or NCOs, therefore being at least somewhat familiar with military, and that there were other "further readings", too -

yet one student questioned that is military strategy really relevant to what the workshop participants are doing (he was right, it isn't, really - the reference was mostly historical) and commented that he, at least, would have strong feelings against using lessons from any military in any business.

I hope I did manage to explain to him some concepts of competitive strategy and the importance of fast decision-making later on, but I think the lesson is clear: military arouses passions both for and against. If you want to get your message through, avoid them.


Mike said...


Your readers may find our post on why vSente uses military analogies for marketing campaigning of interest:

Mike Smock
Managing Director
vSente - San Francisco

J. M. Korhonen said...

Now that I finally managed to read Mike's post on the very same subject, I bow in respect :). That's a very good post and well worth the read.

I would, however, make one comment: My experience has been that if you give doubters some point that they can attack, they will do so. I have seen the same process play out in new product development, where it's usually a bad idea to overdo early sketches or prototypes of a product.

That's because what happens is that people mistakenly focus on one point (the so-called "I don't like the color"-syndrome) and miss out the rest, the real work that has been done.

In product development, I advocate building first rough prototypes from Lego bricks and drawing sketches so that it's really apparent that they are that, i.e. first rough drafts. And I believe advocates of maneuver theory should carefully consider using similar ploys to get through first resistance (especially in academic circles), but Mike's approach is founded on long experience and therefore probably is more on target than mine.