Building blocks
Jon Ayre
Jon Ayre Strategic Advisory Practice Lead

Our Thinking Tue 14th August, 2018

Tactics – the building blocks of strategy

“For want of a nail”. There’s a nursery rhyme that starts with those words, which exists in many different forms the world over:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The message, in its various forms, links an apparently small omission that goes uncorrected with a later, more profound loss.

In business, when we’re developing a strategy we often start with a grand vision and then develop the detail – but what form do those pesky nails take, and how can we make sure we’ve found them all?

The answer is tactics. And what better source for inspiration than the extensive experience embodied in military tactics?

War! What is it good for?

War has often been used as a metaphor for business. Many are uncomfortable with this comparison and have gone so far as to suggest we should stop using combat analogies in our strategies.

I have no such qualms. Certainly, war is different to business in many ways as Frank Cespedes describes in his article “Stop Using Battle Metaphors in Your Company Strategy”. He states “business, unlike a war or battle, is not primarily about defeating an enemy” and of course he’s right; that’s not what business is primarily about. But then, neither is war, when considered within the wider context of trade, diplomacy and politics.

This is why I still like to draw on military tactics when considering all the actions that one might undertake to fulfil a strategy. Coupled with a proper consideration of the environment in which I’m operating, to ensure situational awareness, I find it’s always a productive way to generate ideas.

In my previous post (“Visualising Data for Better Decisions”), I mentioned a mapping technique I’ve developed which allows the factors of the business environment to be laid out in an intuitive and familiar manner. It forms part of an overall High Impact Strategy approach and the information it conveys is captured in the “Environment” phase, which covers allies, enemies, terrain and structure:

It is within the context of this environment that I like to consider approach, and look to military tactics for ideas.

Military tactics – a surfeit of riches

When you tap into the history of military tactics, the problem quickly ceases to be one of idea generation and becomes one of information overload. The list of potential military tactics is long and complex, but provides an excellent source of inspiration for forming a business strategy. I’ve identified those most applicable to business and boiled them down to twelve key concepts:

Military tactics

I’m sure you can see an opportunity for one of those much-loved sticky note sessions here! Needless to say, this should all be guided by your overall objectives – and needs to be aligned to your company values. To help with filtering, I’ve aligned the tactics according to the level of constructiveness or destructiveness involved in each.

Note that I’ll make no attempt to align them from an ethical or moral standpoint – that is a very personal activity, and a topic in its own right! This is more about understanding the tools available to us in business; and even if you’d never want to use one of them, it’s good to know what your competitors might be considering…

Over the rest of this post, I’ll provide a brief description of each of these tactics, and how they might apply within a business context.

Disclaimer: The descriptions of these tactics are given without judgement as to their relative ethical values. In each case, ideas can be generated that are positive, but some approaches may emerge that are undesirable. Remember, although we are using a combat metaphor, this is not actually war – people are not going to die – so keep this in mind when considering which tactics you are willing to include in your strategy.

False flag
A false flag is a covert operation designed to create the appearance of a particular party, group, or nation being responsible for some activity, whilst at the same time disguising the actual source of responsibility. An example from banking might be the creation of an online bank with a new name, and no obvious affiliation to a core bank. This would camouflage the larger player’s entry into the market and disguise the real threat.

Smoke screening
Quite literally, using smoke to provide concealment, in order to allow forces to move across open terrain without drawing direct fire from the enemy. In business, this might involve putting out misleading communications to lull the competition into a false sense of security, or make them believe you are doing the very thing that you are not. Alternatively, artificially raising the profile of something that you are doing but that is not core to your strategy can draw attention away from your true intent, whilst also remaining credible in the face of closer investigation by a competitor.

Force concentration
This is the practice of concentrating a military force against a portion of an enemy force rather than at the enemy as a whole. An example of this is the ‘Canon–Xerox copier battle’ in the UK in the 1980s. Canon gained a foothold in the market by concentrating all resources on a single geographical area (Scotland) until dominance could be achieved. They continued this for each subsequent region using the same focussed resources, leading up to a final determined ‘push’ in London with a numerically larger salesforce.

Battle drill
Battle drill involves the reduction of military tactics to the bare essentials, which are then taught to personnel as a team drill. A good drill includes clear explanations of the objectives to be achieved, the principles involved and the individual task of each member of the team. In business, this means training your teams in ways to respond autonomously to anticipated situations, and then empowering them to do so. This buys you the time to think and then react strategically, rather than having to micro-manage the initial response.

One business example might be a flexible pricing strategy, which allows operatives to adjust prices within certain guidelines in response to particular market behaviours – without the need for executive intervention. A second would be a secondary response to an outage of your new service in which the customer service team engage proactively with the customer community to limit damage to, or even enhance the reputation of the service.

Psychological warfare
This group of tactics employs primarily psychological methods to evoke a planned reaction in other people. The techniques used in psychological warfare are aimed at influencing the recipients’ belief systems, emotions and motivation in order to affect their behavior. In business, this may involve signal boosting existing negative publicity about a competitor’s ethical values. This could in turn affect the morale of the employees and the ability of the competitor to retain or attract talent and customers. More positively, a business might allow its own employees to be very open about their successes, and the environment in which they work thus attracting talent away from a competitor.

Reconnaissance by Fire
Military forces often fire on potential enemy positions in order to provoke a reaction. This allows them to confirm the presence, position and or capability of enemy forces. In business, you may be considering a disruptive play in a particular market, but be concerned about potential competition and their current progress. An ‘open’ article about the concept from an ‘independent’ source that criticises the competition could be used to prompt similar articles from other players you are trying to assess. With open communication platforms like Twitter, this has become far easier to achieve, as a simple tweet can evoke responses from individuals involved in similar activities in competing organisations.

In warfare, infiltration tactics involve small independent light infantry forces advancing into enemy rear areas, avoiding stronger front-line points, potentially isolating them for follow-up attacks by larger forces. Soldiers are given the autonomy to identify weak points and choose their own routes and targets, and their own methods of attack. Infiltration forces are typically more highly trained and use more specialised equipment.

In business, infiltration might involve targeting a niche market that a large competitor uses to attract customers to its broader offerings – thus winning the customers before they reach the competitor and avoiding the need to attack the competition where they are strongest. Example: Timex sold its watches in drugstores, where Swiss watch makers were not present. Thus a significant proportion of the potential customer base was intercepted before they ever reached the big players.

The term “coalition” refers to a group formed when two or more groups agree to work together temporarily in partnership to achieve a common goal. A coalition differs from an alliance in that it is formed to achieve a goal, but does not usually involve pooling of resources or meeting of minds.

In business, coalitions are particularly useful in increasing leverage during negotiations. An example of this took place in Wyoming, where ranchers formed a coalition to negotiate land leases with wind energy providers, rather than competing with one another for those leases. They benefited from pooled legal and advisory resources, and a stronger negotiating position as they reduced the ability to divide and conquer.

Shoot-and-scoot (a.k.a. fire-and-move) involves firing at a target and then immediately moving to a new location to avoid counter-fire. In business, an example of shoot and scoot might be to offer a time-limited loss-leading discount on a particular product to draw business to your broader offering, then quickly move that discount to the next product before the competition has a chance to react to your offer. Another might be to broadcast a move in one of your competitor’s markets causing them to engage in defensive activity, then quickly abandon that move and broadcast the next. This will spread their resources thinly over a variety of activities while you focus on your true target.

The term originated during the age of sail, but is now used to describe a position taken up by an armoured fighting vehicle so that the main part of the vehicle is behind raised ground, whilst the turret is exposed. It allows the vehicle to engage in fire without exposing its hull to attack.

In business, taking a hull-down position might involve exposing a developing consumer product to the market without revealing the broader ecosystem you are creating behind it (the real product). This allows you to attack the market with the product and gain a customer base, whilst ensuring that any response you draw from competitors does not target the underlying ecosystem.

Leapfrogging involves the division of force into two teams. One team lays down suppressing fire to occupy the enemy while the other moves to a more favourable position. In business, one team might engage in direct competition to keep a competitor busy defending the existing market giving them less time to think, whilst the second team makes a disruptive pure play into the same market, thus leapfrogging the competition. Used in conjunction with coalition, this can be a powerful technique.

Reconnaissance is exploration beyond the currently occupied area in order to gain information about natural features and other activities in the environs. In business, this will comprise techniques such as market research, focus groups, user research. It may also include activities such as examining newspaper articles, corporate publications, websites, patent filings, specialised databases, information at trade shows and the like to determine information on a corporation and obtain competitive intelligence.

Counter-mobility is the term used to describe efforts to hinder enemy movement. Combat engineers aim to ensure that hostile forces cannot have freedom of mobility, and are trained in the use of explosive charges to create obstacles, crater roads and destroy bridges. An example in business is lobbying for the introduction of regulations that suit your way of working, whilst creating a barrier for others to enter or remain in the market. Other ways to block movement into a market might involve the use of patents, licencing models or control of the supply chain.

In military terms, protection covers the capability to protect troops, equipment and weapons. Techniques can include the construction of field defences, methods of concealment and camouflage, and the creation of defensive positions and screens. In business deploying individuals to manage stakeholder relationships can protect a team from coming under fire in difficult situations. Development of a strong brand can also act as a protective shield against negative market forces.

Force multiplication
Force multiplication refers to a factor that dramatically increases the effectiveness of an item or group, giving you the ability to accomplish greater things than without it. The tactical use of weather as a force multiplier has influenced many important battles throughout history. Knowing the rains are coming allows an army to move across low ground and river beds whilst they are dry and take up position on high rocky ground. The weather will then increase the strategic value of that ground.

In business you might adapt to potential regulatory change in advance, and then lobby for its introduction. This creates a barrier to entry and makes your position easier to defend. Similarly, taking approaches that exploit time limited tax incentives or government grants, gives you an advantage that others may not then be able to exploit. In both business and in war, effective and efficient communication can act as a force multiplier.

The capability to deliver firepower, troops and supplies to any part of the battlefield is crucial to success. Combat engineers are deployed to overcome physical obstacles both natural and man-made, ensuring that other troops can reach their targets quickly, and fight effectively. Quick start guides, access to relevant training and freedom from control can all increase the mobility of a team, as can the provision of tools and resources that can be adopted with little or no effort. Externally, lobbying for deregulation and open standards can also increase mobility.

A debriefing

Hopefully, you’ll see how tactics such as these form the important building blocks of an overall strategy. Millenia of humanity’s military experience provide an excellent source of inspiration, and as Sun Tzu pointed out:

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory”

So it’s critical that you focus on your tactics, consider all the angles, and draw on the experience of others to do so. But it’s just as important that you never get drawn solely into tactical thinking and forget the other half of that famous saying:

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” – Sun Tzu

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