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Keep it simple and keep it focused says Carl von Clausewitz

This website is about strategy and tactics in business. We shouldn’t forget that many strategies come from the military. Strategies have always been with us in business. However, prior to 1970, long term planning was a more common description rather than strategies. It is as if we have discovered the power of military strategies in the last thirty to forty years.

In a previous blog I talked about the impact of the Chinese general, Sun Tzu whose successes 2500 years go taught us to avoid war if we can and if we can't, to “know yourself and know who you are up against”. This week I jump to the recent past (actually 200 years ago) when the Prussian German general, Carl von Clausewitz, lined his forces up against Napoleon's and won. With more than 20 years of battles under his belt and a further decade teaching at the Kriegsakademie, von Clausewitz was well placed to write a book on military strategy and tactics. In line with his credo, it had the simple title “On War” and was published posthumously by his wife in 1832.

Although he didn't say so, von Clausewitz was in complete agreement with Sun Tzu on the need for intelligence. He advocated assembling everything that could be garnered on the competition into a situation analysis. From this he argued it becomes possible to figure out a winning strategy. His key to a winning strategy was focus. Not just physical resources but also hearts and minds. Von Clausewitz thought it to be just as important to decide what not to do as it is to decide on a way forward. To him, focus was everything.

As devotees of frameworks, the importance of focus isn't new. Almost every framework we read about reminds us of the importance of this. We learn that if we try to do everything, we will dilute our resources and invite failure.

It follows therefore that strategies that are focused on winning should be simple if they are to be successful. Everyone can understand focused and uncluttered strategies. Their overall aim is clear and teams can work towards it. Tactics are the individual battles that must be fought in order to achieve the overall strategy.

What makes von Clausewitz's teaching so very powerful is his recognition that the magic ingredient in warfare is morale. A small army with the right morale can defeat one that is many times its size. We see this all the time in business. Those companies that have high employee engagement are almost always the most profitable. It is what Sasser, Schlesinger and Heskett, called the service profit chain - the link between employee satisfaction which leads to customer loyalty and ultimately to profitability.

Von Clausewitz hasn’t exactly given us a framework but he does help us understand winning strategies - keep it simple and keep it focused.

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