Applying the Principles of War to Business Transformation

By Dr. Charles T. Brandon IIIJuly 9, 2021

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Whether we realize it or not, business leaders have found value in applying the principles of war to the management and execution of business operations. In many ways, ensuring the survival and success of a business initiative, in a competitive environment, is not dissimilar to ensuring the survival and success of a military unit on the battlefield. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there is much that we can learn from this approach.

In many ways, the same forces that impact the operations of a business also impact the operations of a military organization. Today, successfully prosecuting a war requires much more than a mastery of tactics, techniques, and procedures. It requires a cadre of skilled managers. We may call these managers, leaders, but arguably what they do is the same. They drive a workforce to create the best value for their customer. Our output may be combat power, and theirs profit, but the focus of both is on effectively and efficiently accomplishing the mission.  In either case, the tools and methods used to organize for success are almost identical.

Whether or not we neglect the training of our leaders when it comes to the development of management acumen is a discussion for another article. What should not be controversial is that there may be some value in military leaders thinking about our own principles of war in a similar manner to how a business managers think about them.

Applying the Principles of War

Economy of Force – Optimize the Utilization of Resources

Optimizing the use of assigned resources is essential to increasing the output of an organization. For example, over-committing and under-utilizing combat power affords an adversary the opportunity to use fewer resources to achieve its mission objectives during an engagement. Similarly, when managing the business of the Army, leaders need to understand that optimizing the utilization of resources is essential to achieving the full potential of an organization, unit, or team. Re-aligning the employment of resources that are over-committed and under-utilized is crucial to optimizing performance.

Maneuver – Institutionalize Agility

Organizations need to institutionalize operational agility in order to have the maneuverability to be innovative and make improvements that better serve their customers. Despite all odds, and no matter what the competition does, organizations need to continue moving forward and always look for simpler, cheaper, and faster ways to create value and serve customers.

Mass – Focus Effort on Priorities

The principle of mass is about concentrating power at the right place and time. While understanding what is required at the right place and time can be difficult to know with any certainty, military leaders need to understand that some objectives can only be achieved when sufficient resources are applied to them. The expectation that all objectives can eventually be accomplished with insufficient resources is a false one. Just like critical mass is required to overcome an enemy position on the battlefield, so too is critical mass required in the achievement of an organizations business tasks, objectives, and goals. Far too often, program budgets are cut without any assessment of whether or not the objectives of the program can be achieved with fewer resources. Leaders should always focus their resources on what can be accomplished, and be very careful about under-resourcing a much larger group of activities that are likely to languish or never be completed.

Objective – Set Achievable Goals

Every action must support a clearly defined and actionable goal. Though it may sound obvious, it is of paramount importance to know what you are setting out to accomplish, and how you plan to achieve it. If you do not know what your goals are, or the purpose of your work, you will save yourself a considerable amount of time and energy by stopping what you are doing and figuring out what your goals should be, and how they should impact your overarching mission.

Offensive – Advance Competitiveness

Business, like war, is an intense fight for survival. In order to ensure survival, business managers and military leaders need to ensure that their organizations are on a path to dominate their competition. Those who are not constantly taking the steps needed to adapt and improve will ultimately fall victim to the organizations that do. In war, going out of business is more commonly called defeat, and bankruptcy is called annexation. Avoiding defeat and annexation in a competitive operational environment requires an offensive mindset.

Security – Protect Value Creation

In the Army, as in business, we should be focused on protecting our valuable assets and resources. This is because competitors with an offensive mindset are always on the lookout for opportunities to take advantage of a vulnerability. As social, mobile, and cloud technologies increasingly become integral to the functioning of most organizations, protecting the tactics, tools, and procedures used to create value will become more difficult and will require greater effort. While the Information Age will usher in a wave of progress, it will also require successful and resilient organizations to find new and transformative ways to secure the value they generate.

Simplicity – Ensure Workforce Can Execute

In the words of Clausewitz, “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Complexity leads to friction that frustrates mission accomplishment.   As leaders articulate their vision and objectives, they need to ensure that their plans remain clear, succinct, and easy to understand if they are to be executed effectively and efficiently.

Surprise – Innovate and Improve

The most common and classic mistake that a business can make is to be predictable. This does not necessarily mean you need to introduce a new service or product, but it does mean that an organization should be continually improving, reengineering, or repositioning the services and products it provides. As competitors adapt to current capabilities, Army leaders should leverage their business management plans and use business process improvement tools and methodologies to develop and employ new capabilities that enable their customers and engage their competitors in new ways.

Unity of Command – Align Work to Mission Achievement

The hierarchical, or vertical, management system adopted by the Army is not designed to reinforce authoritarianism, it is designed to enable an organization (Command) to act with singular purpose to achieve an assigned mission. When an operational environment or organization’s mission is ill-defined or less clear, a horizontal management system allows an organization to broaden its focus to better take advantage of less certain opportunities. Neither system is optimal in all circumstances, but what is essential to both systems is that the workforce be thoughtfully organized and managed to thrive. Often, work, whether purposefully or through neglect, is sub-optimally aligned. Even work that is effectively and efficiently conducted can be counter-productive or provide little value to the achievement of an organization’s mission.

About the author: Dr Brandon is a retired Army officer with over 40 years of combined military and civilian service. He currently serves as the Director of the Army Business Process Improvement and Innovation in the Office in the Army Office of Business Transformation, HQDA.