As someone who served in the military, I’ve often been interested in the degree to which military terms – ambush, raids, take no prisoners, etc – are used in common business parlance. I thought I’d take a few moments to explore three terms and their application to strategy.
A Pyrrhic victory commonly refers to a battle outcome where one side emerges victorious but greatly weakened. Pyrrhic victories are victories in name only – they usually are failures in strategy and lead to defeat another day. The term takes its name from King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who defeated the Romans in two battles – the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC and the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC – but the “victories” caused King Pyrrhus (as reported by Plutarch) to say “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”.
Pyrrhic victories in the business world are most common in litigation, where one side prevails but the real winners are the lawyers. In 2012, Apple was busy doing a touchdown dance as they were awarded (by a jury) $1B in their patent war against Samsung. The award amount garnered considerable headlines because it was a big number – unless you consider the money involved in selling smart phone handsets to the world. Predictably, Samsung appealed, the case bounced around, and less than a year ago it was announced that the two parties had reached a confidential settlement, which in my mind means “less than $1B”.
During the nearly decade of posturing, arguing, litigating, and appealing, it’s unlikely Apple came very far ahead. Of course, huge companies like Apple might be ok with the trade-off because they freeze the market somewhat and inflict distraction on their enemies. But this is a strategy that few companies have the resources or time to follow.
Smart companies avoid unnecessary entanglements – legal and otherwise – that drain resources from core business. Speaking of resources….
3:1 Resource Advantage
In military strategy, it is a common rule of thumb that any frontal assault – to mean, breaking through an enemy’s defenses – requires a 3:1 resource advantage. Want to displace Crest toothpaste from the shelves of CVS? You need to have a 3:1 resource advantage relative to what Procter & Gamble spend on the brand (in other words, don’t bother).
Pickett’s charge during Gettysburg was one famous frontal assault. The assaulting force had 12,500 men who had to cover three quarters of a mile of open field to attack an enemy who had favorable ground. Although the assault achieved some momentary breaks in the Union lines, the exhausted and depleted force could not press their short advantage and quickly receded – and I used the word “receded” in the aquatic sense, since the furthest point the Confederates reached that day is still marked at the Gettysburg battlefield and referred to as the “high water mark“.
Throughout my career I have kept the 3:1 resource advantage in mind when choosing my spots as to where to compete and how to compete. Frontal assaults rarely work. Even during the war I was involved in – Desert Storm – despite the US holding considerable advantage in the training, equipment, ability and technology over the entrenched Iraqi Army – the US Army swung far to the left (the famous “left-hook” move) instead of attacking directly at the front.
Remember – frontal assaults don’t usually work. Pick your battles wisely, and think about how to go around your obstacle rather than through it. (Military note: this accepted 3:1 force ratio has existed for centuries but today is less sacrosanct due to the disrupting effect of technology advantage – also something business people should consider).
Defense in Depth
The term defense in depth means a couple things. In classic military jargon, it refers to the process of trading space (ground) for time and affording opportunities to attack an enemy’s flank. I also think of it relating to any sort of defense – you don’t want one line of defense only. Multiple layers of defense delays an enemy incursion, complicates their strategy, and may cause them to choose not to fight (perhaps the greatest military move of all, according to Sun Tzu).
Sometimes you’ll hear terms that harken to medieval times – “protect the castle”, “deepen the moat” etc – that suggest defending in depth. A business might consider new features that deepen a product’s value to a customer while creating another hurdle for a competitor to overcome in their effort to win that business. Consumer technology companies are great at this. If you think about the Apple example above, you see that litigation is a defensive strategy for them, but so too are the inclusion of new features, the deployment of Apple Stores, the creation of partnerships with the music and financial services industry, and so on.
While military terms are understandable in business, let me end with two cautionary notes.
First, military terms are oriented around zero-sum thinking. There usually is a winner and a loser. Leaders who spend a lot of their time in this mindset can get too focused on defeating their competitors rather than improving outcomes for their stakeholders. I wrote an allegorical letter to address this some years ago, which you can read here.
Secondly, military terms are..well…martial. They are comprised of language that can be violent (of course) and might exclude those on your team who are from other cultures. They also tend to be favored by men. A little of something can be a good thing, but too much of it can hinder rather than help your communication. All things in moderation.