For much of the first year of my second career, I met with and engaged business leaders from a variety of industries around the country, working to help them find flexible and affordable options for developing the next generation of leaders for their companies. Despite being a $14 billion industry, leader and leadership development is often an elusive and evasive endeavor for most companies. Limited budgets, time, and even talent create conundrums that are difficult to resolve.
Although our conversations primarily focused on issues related to leadership, they often drifted into other areas of concern. Not surprisingly, we found very common—and fertile—ground for much deeper and more meaningful discussion. One of those areas that struck an early and resonant chord was strategy. After decades of experience with military planning and strategy development, I was absolutely fascinated with the thinking that business leaders committed to competing in a volatile and brutal market. Although they measured profit and loss in much less stark terms than blood and treasure, the associated risks of competition often weighed just as heavily on their decision making as any combat leader I’d ever known.
5 Key Questions Military Leaders Need to Be asking
The domain of business strategy isn’t all that much different from that of military strategy. Differences in taxonomy are a given, but once you sort through the language, the core ideas are generally similar. In fact, it’s rare to meet a business leader who doesn’t own a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or hasn’t studied some of the great captains of history. Where the similarities begin to diverge is in the key questions they ask before committing to a competition that could make them an industry leader or leave them unemployed and broke. In an ideal world, military leaders would ask the same sorts of question, but most don’t. In business, they can’t afford not to ask them.
1. What is our value proposition?
In business, value proposition is what makes a productive attractive to customers and, as a result, allows for an advantage in a highly competitive environment. The Apple iPhone is a great example, especially in the early years before other companies could compete effectively in the smart phone market. In some ways, this is similar to a question that the former commanding general of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, General David Perkins, routinely asked: “What problem are we trying to solve?” Will what you are proposing actually make a significant difference? Is it worth the commitment of blood and treasure?
2. Where will we compete?
In business, where you compete is just as important as how you compete. To achieve success, it’s essential to understand the market and your potential customers, both of which can vary widely according to location. A value proposition that works well for one segment of the market can miss the mark completely in another. In the same vein, military strategy must account for differences across the operational environment: What works well in one region might not work so well—or be well received—in another. Ignoring those nuances comes at a cost.
3. What capabilities do we need?
As business leaders analyze the competitive environment, they identify what capabilities must be brought to bear to gain the greatest advantage, such as increased production capacity, an expanded supply chain, or improved cost management. This type of thinking translates well to military strategy and planning, where questions of capability and capacity are central to any effort. In business, companies must tread lightly; there’s a fine line between deploying the resources that win in a competitive space and overextending yourself to the point of failure. Coincidentally, that same line exists in military strategy, but we sometimes don’t recognize it until we’re already overextended.
4. How will we win?
This is a fundamental question in both business and military strategy. What’s our plan? How will we execute it? What are the key decisions to be made? But, as Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” In any competitive environment, your opponents “get a vote.” Situations change. Circumstances don’t always go as planned. In both military and business strategy, “winning” typically comes down to flexibility and good decision making in execution.
5. How do we define success?
This is a foundational question to strategy. In business, success can be defined in any number of ways: market share, customer loyalty, brand recognition, or simply in terms of profit. But you can be sure that any company that enters a competitive space will define the parameters of success in advance as well as the metrics to assess the degree to which that success is achieved. Anything less puts the livelihood of a company at significant risk. During the formulation of military strategy, that question is often asked but not always answered sufficiently. This is sometimes due to the vagueness of policy or the uncertainty of the situation. Nevertheless, it is a question that must be asked early and often; don’t move the goalposts if you’re going to blindfold the kicker.