The Art of War and the Art of Battle

The goal of a business strategy is clear-cut:

Win the customer’s preference and create a sustainable competitive advantage, while providing sufficient return for owners or, in the case of a publicly held company, the shareholders. A strategy defines the direction the business will take and positions it to move in that direction.

A strategic plan outlines how the war will be won. It defines the critical hills that must be taken. With that information in hand, the generals must determine how the resources – people, equipment, finances, timing and focus – will be allocated. If those resources are insufficient or lack the ability to win the war, the leadership must plan to supplement its army.

The allocation of these resources and the timing for deploying them is in essence the art of battle. It is how we will win the war. In business, we refer to this as the tactical or operational plan.

One of former President Dwight David Eisenhower’s favorite sayings was “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

At the World Business Forum in New York City, New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani said, “You have to be prepared for the worst things that can happen in order to get people through things. My mentor in the Attorney General’s offices said that I should always prepare four hours for every hour I planned to spend in court. When you’re prepared, the unanticipated is just a variation on the anticipated.”

Mayor Giuliani recounted that at the turn of the millennium, the entire world undertook massive preparations for what was termed the Year 2000 problem. Private and public sector leadership were concerned that all computer systems would no longer function accurately when the calendar turned from 1999 to 2000 because of the way that calendar years had been coded. There was a widespread concern that banks would no longer have access to funds, patient age records in hospitals would be completely inaccurate, traffic systems would cease to work and even prisons would find themselves without secure systems.

Billions of dollars were spent to recode software applications, and still, there was a widespread fear that catastrophe loomed somewhere as certainly, some application must have been overlooked. To be certain, The Mayor challenged his management team to create extensive plans to ward off this possible catastrophe. In effect, he charges his management to plan for an eventuality where New York could no longer function.

On January 2nd, 2000, leadership throughout the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. There was no computer-spawned catastrophe and while there were some inconveniences, these inconveniences were quickly remedied.

Mayor Giuliani might have felt that this massive investment in contingency planning might not have been all that valuable, given the limited scope of the challenges that appeared in January 2000. After all, nothing significant happened. But, as he explained, it was our Y2K preparations allowed us to be ready for September 11th, 2001 when an unthinkable tragedy brought New York to a standstill.

Indeed, it is difficult to anticipate the exact scenario and match the plan to the anticipated circumstance. Yet, the very act of planning provides us with the means by which we can anticipate responses and adjust our actions accordingly.

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