The Principles of War underpin military doctrine and conduct, they have been determined as a result of experience in conflict by examining the key components present in all successful military operations. As such, these principles can be applied to the conduct of more general, commercial and business activities to enhance the likelihood of success. Ergo, they can be considered as the Principles of Winning. Application of the principles alone does not guarantee success; however, failure to adhere to any of them will almost certainly guarantee failure in battle.
Selection and maintenance of the aim is making absolutely clear, precisely what is to be achieved (by whom, when and why) to ensure all concerned remain focused and all associated actions are co-ordinated. The aim must be understood and fully accepted by all involved. All activity must be aimed at achieving and contribute towards achieving the aim and it is important to understand in reality the aim may (will) change as the battle progresses.
Maintenance of morale will be crucial in determining the outcome of combat in the event of all things being equal, ie. when no side has a clear advantage. Irrespective of context and situation – well motivated people with high morale perform better than those without. Good morale can be the difference between success and failure; morale and motivation are the responsibility of leaders.
Security within any military context is generally obvious; in the business context the principle of security is concerned with managing all the essential risks necessarily taken to achieve an outcome. This includes (say) confidentiality, copyright, financial constraints, succession planning, etc. as much as the more obvious health and safety in operations. Security is as much about facilitating and safeguarding the bold moves which gain competitive advantage as it is about looking after routine business.
Surprise is about gaining advantage by doing the unexpected; it is the deliberate ‘wrong footing’ of the enemy (competition) to bring about his/her demise. Creativity, courage and speed are the key ingredients to surprise and as such need to be nurtured and developed as an organisational attitude. In a business context the ‘enemy’ may be a competitor, a specific situation or set of circumstances.
Offensive action is about proactive, deliberate action aimed at winning through in order to achieve the stated aim – exploiting advantage, opportunity and strength to accomplish the task. Again, this is as much an organisational attitude as anything else. To understand the nature of this principle as a ‘mind set’ consider polar views of defining business success in the current ‘economic climate’ presented in this question. Is success about avoiding failure or achieving stated objectives irrespective of prevailing circumstances? Offensive action is proactively doing what is required to succeed; it is not about accepting mediocrity or avoiding failure.
Concentration of force is about applying decisive force and effort at the most decisive place and time to secure victory in battle as no army can be the best at everything all the time. In the business world this principle is about achieving the right effect in the right location to ensure the desired outcome; for example (say) timing and targeting of investment to yield the best possible return. Rarely, if ever, will the opportunity of the right force being present at the right time in the right place present itself; concentration of force is a managed deliberate act of choice.
Economy of effort is self evident; it is about efficiency in all you undertake. Essentially, it is concerned with understanding the nature and effect of attrition on the conduct of enduring campaigns. It is about shrewd decision making, careful preparation and squeezing all you can from your resources and assets in order to retain sufficient reserves to deal with contingencies and exploit opportunities as they arise. In business this is about (say) spending as little as possible on those items which do not contribute directly to the main aim in order to direct revenue where it will be more effective in achieving the aim. This is not to be confused with ‘cost cutting’.
Flexibility, attitudinal and organisational flexibility, is required to be able to recognise when change is necessary and to change when needed. This requires strength of character and moral courage to change or modify a plan or course of action when the existing one is doomed to failure. The military maxim ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy unchanged’ is borne from hard earned experience, and understanding where the fine line lies between dogged determination to succeed and sheer ‘bloody minded’ dogma leading to failure.
Co-operation is about ensuring unity of effort to achieve a shared outcome and accessing the combined attributes of diversity. The challenge is to overcome inherent disposition to favour a single perspective or approach and inevitably necessitates compromise between those involved. In an organisation, co-operation is concerned with both interpersonal actions and interdepartmental activities. There is very little to no room for significant individual, personal gain in an organisation if achieving organisational aims has primacy.
Sustainability is about ensuring longevity of both operations and effect and, as such, is primarily to do with long term logistical support to the enduring operation in a military context. For example, having the resources and support mechanism in place to ensure the commander can deliver (say) a defined number of missiles at a given rate throughout the expected duration of the battle and beyond. The business parallels are relatively easy to draw; for example, the supply chain is in place and has sufficient funding allocated to ensure enough pressings of the right type arrive at the factory every day for the expected duration of a production run. Sustainability requires dedicated and often ‘inglorious’ work, detailed analysis and application to task which require attributes and skills difficult to find and attract in business.
There is no order of precedence in applying the above principles after the first, selection and maintenance of the aim. The key is all are applied in order to avoid otherwise inevitable failure. Success also involves and requires the presence of other factors and circumstances – not least of which is an element of good fortune (or luck).