Business is War: Over the top

As previously discussed, the Hardly Business Review is a strong proponent of war as a metaphor for the business world. In this post, our resident historian brings learnings from the First World War to your modern-day business

The First World War was a human calamity of epic proportions, claiming almost ten million lives from 1914 to 1918, with trench warfare the best remembered mode of combat.

The definitive war of attrition, with two well-equipped combatants grinding each other down over time, trench warfare could in some ways be compared to today’s smartphone clash of the titans, or the daily battle for the consumer in supermarket aisles.

The trenches demanded the attention of the finest military minds of a generation, as both sides inched to get the upper hand, so it goes without saying that the modern business leader has a lot to learn from his military forebears.

The first change you can apply to your business is structural. If Field Marshall Haig didn’t need to be near the frontlines, then why on earth should you be anywhere near your workforce? Leadership from afar was a great success in World War I, inspiring great team loyalty, and it will likely benefit your business too. Move the CEO’s office to the Bahamas, and you’ll see a huge boost in morale.

You can also learn a lot from the hiring model adopted in the First World War.  The British Army instituted a “conscription” system in 1916, and saw an instant boost in employee numbers. If your business applies the same system to new hires, you will see significant sales growth, assuming constant revenue per employee. Don’t waste time trying to attract good applicants, just put in place a system where they are obliged by law and national duty to work for you and you’ll have no problems.

There are similar lessons to be learned for your HR department, once your veritable army of employees has been hired.  Today’s workforce is cosseted, with everyone bemoaning their work-life balance. The trenches, by contrast, were rife with disease, where the balance of interest was in terms of life and death. Today’s economy barely wobbled through the recession, while the men in the trenches went at it tooth and nail for five years.  The implication is clear: if you want a tireless workforce, worry less about personal development, and more about spreading cholera and dysentery.

What about implementing your strategy? Field Marshal Haig et al can also help you here too. While it may appear that speed of execution is crucial, the Generals of the Great War actually favoured a slow approach when going “over the top”, approaching oncoming fire in a measured and orderly fashion.  And while this tactic admittedly led to huge loss of life, the Allies did win the war (in the end). So stop worrying about first movers advantage, and adopt a snail’s pace. If it’s good enough for military men of yore, it’s good enough for you.

The final aspect of business strategy where the trenches can reassure you is innovation. In the land of technology, innovation is king, but what if none of your projects get off the ground?  What if all your new ideas fail? The key is not to worry, and to just try the same thing over again. Field Marshal Haig steadfastly believed, no matter how many times it failed, that  walking his soldiers slowly over the top would topple the German fortifications, and he was right (in the end). If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it’s just bad luck! If one advertising campaign fails, just run it again. If a new brand falls flat, give it another go.  It will surely work this time round.

So it is organisational change and strategic reassurance we receive, from these great military men. Heed this advice, and after four years and significant loss of life, your business will achieve its potential.

Hat-tip: Blackadder

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