business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Businesses of all kinds got some great advice from a sage military strategist this week, as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" the other evening. He was there to plug his new book, "Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement in a Complex World," and Stewart began the interview by showing a chart from the book that focuses on the current military-political structure in the Middle East. The chart had two figures. One was "what we were designed for," and the other was "what we were facing." (See below ... and you can click on the graphic to see the entire interview.)

The subject, at the moment, was the Middle East. But the discussion could have been about any competitive business situation.

While we think of many of the forces in the Middle East to be medieval in their orientation, ISIS, McChrystal said, "is a 21st-century organization that uses some frightening tactics, really quickly, and then they leverage Digital Communications to essentially tie their enemies in knots."

In fighting such organizations and creating a future strategy, he went on, "it is fundamentally impossible to predict. So what we really have to do is go at things with an awful lot of humility that says what we're going to to is approach things with the reality that we're going to have to adapt constantly and iterate. You're not going to come up with a 100 year plan, or a 50 or even a five year plan. You're going to come up with general directions and frameworks, and you'd better learn every day, because that's the world we're in now."

And then McChrystal delivered the business lesson.

"In the military, there is a saying that no plan survives contact with the enemy...I think that's what we're finding in business now, too. You've got competition from competitors, garage start-ups, new technology, all of these things, and organizations that get very happy with being efficient, with very, very wired processes that have worked for their grandfathers, fathers and brothers, now don't work."

One can't assume that the enemy - or the competition - is wired the way we'd like them to be wired, that they are thinking in traditional terms or planning traditional strategies. Rather, one has to assume the opposite - that the competition is going to see the marketplace through a different prism, see opportunities for both effectiveness and efficiency where we've missed them, and use strategies and tactics that we haven't considered.

"No plan survives contact with the enemy." Eye-Opening words to live by.

KC's View: