Business and the Battlefield: Brining Clausewitz's Tenets to the Office

Business and the Battlefield: Brining Clausewitz's Tenets to the Office

The father of military strategy, Carl Clausewitz, was a 19th century warrior and philosopher whose strategic doctrine on war continues to be followed by military leaders around the world to this day. While recently re-reading biographies on this famous General, I reflected on whether his strategic thinking related in any way to my business career. I concluded that indeed it did. Here’s how.

When attacking a fortified hill you need a 3X advantage.

Clausewitz stated that a fortified hill is just that, and a force of equal strength, no matter how courageous, smart, committed, or well led, will ultimately fail. In most cases, the 1X or 2X force will be annihilated with material loss of assets and a negative impact on morale.

What does this have to do with business?

Back in the 90’s while running HP’s channel, I had a new boss who charged me with increasing HP’s market share in the Intel Server category. Compaq Proliant servers dominated the market and were solidly entrenched in the North America IT Channel. Of course, as a hard-charging youngish leader I immediately accepted the challenge, even signing up for a double-digit quota growth.

After briefing my team, we quickly went to work building out a resource plan consisting of incremental headcount, marketing resources, budget, etc. We not only had a solid plan, we believed in it and were excited to execute on it.

I presented the plan to executive management and they approved it all, with the exception of any line items requiring budget. With no incremental anything, we were given the order to “make it happen” using only current resources and staff.

Of course I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. I made a passionate and, I believe, well-thought out plea to the bosses, stating that without the additional resources, the probability of successfully taking share from server dominant Compaq was low. My appeal was met with what seemed like manipulative clichés such as, “A real leader could do it,” and the infamous “Work smarter, not harder”  What was I to say?

So, what happened? If still alive, Clausewitz would have told the budget decision-makers that attacking an entrenched competitor with an under-resourced plan would fail, and he would be right. It failed.

While we did marginally increase our share through heroic work by the team combined with some complacency on Compaq’s part, the ROI on the resources and energy spent was poor and it did indeed challenge morale.

In hindsight, I should never have accepted the challenge without the resources and headcount required to win.  Of course, in making these decisions, there are always political and career implications to be considered while finding the right balance between speaking the truth and appearing not to equivocate.

Sadly, I failed to heed’s Clausewitz strategy once again while managing the B2B team of a large mobile manufacturer-chasing share from Apple. My conclusion is that short term for revenue growth often conflict with short term expense management creating a difficult paradox.

Friction: If you haven’t personally experienced it, you will underestimate its negative effects.

Clausewitz believed that leaders and staffers with no personal experience in battle would underestimate the inherent friction they will encounter in executing a strategy on the battlefield. He also believed that in war, inexperienced leaders and staffers with no personal experience would underestimate the inherent friction in any new strategy.  

I see this in the business world as well. Ignoring or not recognizing friction will trip up the leader who has an “everything seems so simple“ way of thinking thinking and “the knowledge seems so obvious” arrogance.

Clausewitz believed leaders need personal experiences in order to develop the mental ability and the brilliance to be successful. I agree.

Not too long ago, I traveled with an executive leader to a U.S.-headquartered company where we had been able to secure a high-level meeting.  We met with an empowered executive who was considering a vendor change for their embedded entertainment system within their fleet. The opportunity was huge, qualified, and exciting.

The product component of the meeting with the buyer went great and we had a clear and compelling technology advantage over the incumbent.  In fact, it went too well, and the dynamic that Clausewitz articulated kicked in.

From the positive response by the potential customer to the selling executive on the product, everything else “seemed easy” and the knowledge on how to proceed “so obvious.” To this executive, integration into the software would be a piece of cake, interfacing into the accounting systems would be easy, and the knowledge to do it was ubiquitous.

Well, of course, none of this was true and my expressed concerns were met with a “You don’t get it,” response.

The result? We didn’t win the deal.

The feedback from the customer was that our plan to become the new supplier had too much risk, too many potential failure points, and too many brand-damaging risks. The net-net is that the executive who accompanied me was trying to sell the solution into the company, but had little prior experience selling into a NA F500 company. While highly successful back in his home country where buyers made decisions quite differently, he was unable to craft and submit a thoughtful, risk-mitigated plan for this project because he had never experienced this scenario before.

Guerrilla Warfare is ineffective in the short term.

While Napoleon had many victories throughout Europe, his armies struggled (and some would say lost) against an insurgent 19th century Spanish force that practiced Guerilla tactics rather than traditional warfare.

Clausewitz took a keen interest in their irregular strategy and invested material time studying their approach. His conclusion was that an insurgent guerrilla force could be highly successful if, and only if, the insurgency itself had strategic patience. Brush-ups and even smaller sized battles could be won using this approach, but it would take time and persistence to ultimately win the war.

Over the past thirty plus years I have sat in dozens of strategic planning meetings around the globe at the manufacturer level, distribution level, and even the last tier where Guerrilla tactics were discussed. My experiences were nearly 100% that when Guerrilla tactics were discussed, it was driven by a lack of budget, the wrong talent set, or a lack of will by executive management. What I never saw was the needed horizon that this strategy required to meet the goals. Quarterly metrics and goals never aligned with these short windows.

Clausewitz has a lot to teach us in the business world.  One of Clausewitz’s most famous quotes is “Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not make everything easy.”  

I agree with him. What do you think?

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