Five business lessons from WW1

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Generals during the First World War failed to adapt their strategies. Business leaders should not make the same mistakes, as it could cost them dearly.

From the end of 1914 until the middle of 1918, during the First World War, the Western Front was in a bloody stalemate. None of the generals from any country involved were capable of finding a solution, apart from sending millions of men to die in futile battles.

A hundred years later, some of our business and political leaders are clueless too.

Here are five lessons we, as businessmen and women, can learn from World War I.

1. Think twice before you start a war

In the summer heat of 1914, crowds in Britain, Germany and France enlisted in their thousands under the promise that the war was going to be "over by Christmas". And, indeed that was the consensus; among top generals, politicians and even economists.

But it lasted longer, had more implications and was substantially more expensive than everyone had expected. By Christmas 1916 all decision makers that led the nations into the war were very regretful and desperately trying to end the conflict.

Whether your company is going to start a war against employees’ unrest, a price war or legal struggle against your competitor, think twice. Make sure it fits into your strategy, have the will, means and money to sustain it, and above all don’t start if you are not 100% sure.

2. Having a strategy is a key advantage, but it can be the wrong one

Germany was prepared to hit hard from the very early days of the war. It had a comprehensive strategy and a well thought-out plan to make it successful (Schlieffen Plan).

However, the Schlieffen Plan failed and the strategy could not be fulfilled anymore. Facing a strategic nightmare of a war on two fronts, Germany eventually lost the war.

3. Taking risks based on cold data can backfire

Germany’s original plan to smash the French, and thus win the war, had a necessary condition: to break Belgium’s neutrality. Germany knew that this could mean bringing the British Empire into war; but the Kaiser assumed the risk. By early 1917, it decided to force Britain into starvation by declaring unrestricted submarine warfare

A century later, in business we pretty much support the idea of calculated risk when leading our companies. And we rely even more on calculations, since we have a surprising amount of data. But the mistake the Germans made during WWI was to leave empathy behind and think that it is only a matter of calculations and possibilities. Never forget we are dealing with people, who are often unpredictable.

4. New challenges are not usually solved with more orthodoxy

British, French and German generals at the Western Front tried, for most of the war, to break the trenches stalemate, but it was not until spring 1918 when this happened. That was after millions of deaths caused by monstrous frontal assaults and a never-ending attrition war. It seemed the lack of ideas at the top contrasted with the endurance and courage of the regular soldiers: someone described the situation as lions led by donkeys

But those generals were not fools. They had wide experience, long and for the most part successful careers, so what went wrong? How could they be so foolish? They were not donkeys leading lions, just old lions leading young ones.

The main challenge those generals faced (and today’s managers face) was the lack of innovation, unsuitability to adapt to new circumstances and above all, blind adhesion to the strictest of orthodoxy.

Winning the war does not mean winning the peace

British military theorist BH Liddel Hart put it this way “the object in war is to obtain a better peace” and not just winning the war as such.

In 1918 Britain not only failed to win the peace but also to learn lessons from the war. A British soldier after the armistice wrote “thank God all this is over and we can get back to real soldiering again”…but the Germans did come back, twenty years later and, this time, in a more dangerous kind.

In the business world, similarly, when we bet everything on defeating our competitor, a colleague, another department or branch, regardless of what consequences might bring, we could make a huge error. But the greater risk lies, nevertheless, in not learning from the War.

Ignacio Gonzalez-Posada is associate professor at the IE Business School and business development manager at Air Miles. His book How to Win a War is out now.

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