On a gloomy Thursday in September of 2002, I was standing in a bookstore in Detroit when my life was changed through a purely accidental discovery. I was the CEO of a $40 million company and I had been in the process of researching historical examples of situations in which small organizations were able to defeat much larger organizations. I was engaged in this activity as the company that I ran was precisely in that position, which was not unlike that of a small dog running among the legs of elephants. We were small and agile but fragile, while our competitors were large and powerful but ponderous. I was sure that there was a way to gain an advantage and I was determined to find it by utilizing the time honored method of emulating historical precedent.
I was proceeding from the viewpoint that most problems that an organization has or will face have been dealt with, at sometime in the past, by other organizations. Therefore, a good method to utilize in solving organizational problems is generally to review history and to look for historical precedents. Of course, the one unbroken form of human organization that has survived over the preceding four millennia is the military, and the successes and failures of various states and nations through military armed struggle tends to be better reported and documented than those issues that were undoubtedly faced by groups such as the Sumerian bakers guild.
I had completed a review of the tactics and methods of Alexander the Great which encouraged me to really take this project seriously and had perambulated about halfway through the Roman period (Hannibal and Cannae) and was just finishing up Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s excellent analysis of Scipio Africanus, the Roman tactical genius who demolished Hannibal and ended the second Punic war in favor of Rome. The lessons were coming fast and thick, and I felt that I might be onto some real and original breakthrough work. But on this day I chanced upon Robert Coram’s book “Boyd”.
Within two days I had realized that I would not be able to do any truly original work in this area, which was a little disappointing, but that the upside was that the solution to my problem was laid out before me like a banquet in Boyd’s original manuscript of his magnum opus, “Patterns of Conflict”. Boyd’s “acolytes” who tend to regard Col. Boyd’s works as holy writ had dutifully scanned and deposited Boyd’s own original presentation materials on an interesting website devoted to business applications of Boyd’s principles and run by Dr. Chester Richards (www.slightlyeastofnew.com).
Once I found “Patterns of Conflict”, I realized that, by this endeavor, the estimable Col. Boyd had saved me from having to perform a lot of the mental calculus and intellectual heavy lifting required to come to the conclusions that I was already headed towards. But while I had been approaching the problem from a purely historical perspective, Col. Boyd had taken divergent physical laws, theories, principles and postulates and thereby added intellectual sauce to the goose that can only be described as exhilarating.
Boyd, although primarily a military man saw, well, patterns of conflict everywhere and these patterns extended to the business world. Boyd was particularly taken with the Toyota Production system and the works of Tom Peters and was looking for ways to fold these concepts into what I suppose could be called, “A General Theory of Conflict”.
I began to apply Boyd’s methods during the beginning of 2003. My natural inclinations had already produced an organizational form at our company that can be, I suppose, described as susceptible, indeed prepared, for the use of these methods and so the transition required was not that great. Being of Irish extraction and therefore naturally gifted in the areas of duplicity and disingenuousness and having assembled a naturally devious management team who liked and trusted each other, we had unknowingly proceeded about halfway to mastery of Boyd Basics, and soon faced our first opportunity to test the concepts.
Using Boyd’s fast maneuver concepts and tactical approaches we were able to take a major contract from an entrenched competitor by the middle of 2005. This doubled the size of our North American division from $100 million to $200 million in annual turnover and wrecked a major competitor’s capital investment plans. Our $17 billion competitor had assumed that they could win the business without much difficulty and had invested heavily in new plant and equipment to service the contract which they then, through our humble auspices, failed to acquire. A mouse had roared.
Not only was this a spectacular and satisfying success in and of itself, but the best was watching the competitor react in a fully predictable manner and start to fill his metaphorical battle line with his best reserves while we were already flanking him to attack from another and fully unexpected direction. Although I could be accused of what the Germans call “Schadenfreude”, which is the delight one takes in the discomfiture of others (funny how we all understand the concept, but only the Germans have actually named it), my satisfaction was both an intellectual one and that of the victor of a grand battle.
I was proud of how we had attacked, that we knew the attack would work, that we knew how the opponent would react, and that we had already planned the next gambit so that we could keep him off balance. I marveled at how we had “managed” the entire affair, and that the use of lessons learned by studying patterns of conflict had been a key factor in our success. I was particularly pleased with the fact that we had done this to a much bigger and stronger competitor with far more resources and personnel, who on paper, should have trounced us.
Six months later, I received an e-mail from my boss, the owner of our company and a natural Boydian himself, who had received the following message from a member of the management board of that same competitor:
“I haven’t heard from you in a while, and when that happens I get nervous”
When I read this, I was immediately reminded of a famous line by J.F.C. Fuller:
“… (We) move to terrify, to bewilder, to perplex, to cause confusion in the rear of the enemy.”
Acting quickly in unexpected ways had been the key. We were now doing things that confused and disoriented them; we were turning our decision making cycle faster than they could, acting more quickly and were thereby gaining an incremental advantage with each turn of the cycle by doing so.
We had gotten inside their decision loop, before they could orient themselves; they were turning and looking to find out where we were. But they are unable to see us because we were already set up in a new and different place preparing to disrupt the whole process again. They were looking in their rear view mirror instead of concentrating on the road in front of them.
Boyd’s theories had given us a framework which made us focus on maneuver and the development of an organizational form designed to change direction with a minimal loss of energy. Transitioning from one state to another, from one tactic to another , from one business plan to another with minimal frictional loss is critical to the development of the ability to use speed and focus as well as surprise and boldness to be able to hold the initiative once it has been seized. The organization must be able to continue to move forward quickly during its decision cycle.
Success is, in part, determined by the ability to re-observe and reorient and to make any required changes while on the dead run. This ability is one of the main components of core competencies in the successful organization of the future.