Strategy: communicate or conceal?
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an article about incoming CEOs of private sector organisations, and how the market really likes it when they communicate the strategy they are adopting for their organisation, as reflected by an uplift in the share price. The underlying premise was that this shows the CEO in a good light, highlighting his or her grasp of the organisation and its fit with its environment, and demonstrating management competence of how to exploit that for shareholder return. And in some ways that’s all fine, for the reasons which the article gave.
But it’s a competitive world out there. Why would you expose the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation to your competitors? Why would you share with them the ways in which you will compete? There’s a contrarian view which is about concealment: if you conceal the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation, and the strategy you will use to change your fit with your environment to your advantage, then you are denying key insight to your competitor. A surprised and confounded competitor is one who will have a less coherent and effective response to your actions and surely this is a desirable thing to aim for.
There are different ways to surprise and discombobulate your competitors. One is to outline all the ways in which you could act, or to offer conflicting signals of your intent. So they don’t know what you are up to, and will spend time considering all the possibilities, unable to prepare for just one. Another is to act as though we are going to do something which actually we are not – like a feint in fencing or a dummy pass in rugby – so that they act in a way which is disadvantageous for them. And yet another is by guile and stealth, ensuring that they are unaware of our plans and so unprepared.
There’s a long, long history of doing this in the military and there’s plenty to learn from that. Genghis Khan was a master.
His generals started campaigns long before any fighting, by doing intense training – each fighting unit had extraordinary cohesion. They learnt different formations and drills and practiced them again and again, considering different situations they could find themselves in, and so could quickly adopt the right set of tactics and deliver them with skill and precision when needed. The units trained to work in a very decentralised way, so that in the heat of battle, they could follow the broad objectives from the Mongol commanders, yet use their initiative to attain those objectives in the best way given the local conditions at the time.
They also did thorough reconnaissance. They looked at the topography of the area, assessed resources and supply and gathered intelligence on defences, infrastructure and roads. Their horses helped with this, as the scouts could move fast and bring the intelligence back quickly.
The horses – and each man had several, so that he always had a fresh mount – also gave them a speed advantage when it came to the fight. The units would often divide, so that horsemen were coming at their enemy from all directions, disorientating them. They created an impression of great size and numbers – prisoners were forced to ride spare horses, straw soldiers were also made and put on horseback, and at night they lit many extra fires. They used swift messengers for written communications, and signal flags to order manoeuvres during battle. They could also be very patient and long-term, diverting water resources away from cities and waiting for surrender. And they were adaptive – these fast moving attacks weren’t effective when attacking walled cities, so they copied siege weapons from other fighting forces, including the trebuchet and naphtha bombs. This massive repertoire of tactics was extremely successful; at its peak, the Mongol empire was the largest empire of adjacent lands ever held.
So can Genghis Khan’s domination tell us about strategy in today’s world? The lessons are readily transferable to the world of business. To be competitively successful, we need good intelligence on our operating environment, and on what we can see of the actions of other players in our environment. We need organisations which are skilful and nimble, able to act with initiative locally in support of a broad direction. And we need organisations which are adaptive, which can innovate both to satisfy their customers and to disconcert their competitors.
Looking at Genghis Khan specifically and military history in general, there are two ways to work on differentials in insight; we want accurate and up to date information ourselves, and we want our competitors to have inaccurate and lagging information. Surprise and deception are ways to create that information asymmetry, and build cunning plans which advantage you and disadvantage them. Superior command of information confers advantage, and this is at the heart of all deception strategies. If you have insight into the strategies of your competitors but they don’t have insight into yours, then you have the advantage.
You may feel that deception hasn’t got a place in business, but if even one of your competitors thinks it has, then it’s an approach you will need to consider adopting. It’s a competitive world out there.