Applying Lessons From Historic Wars To Business And Marketing Strategy

At the age of 20 I had much more confidence than business acumen. I believe that I could do a better job of serving customers than my boss, so I quit my job and started my own IT firm. It was by shear tenacity that I was able to gain more business and grow my company. But when strategy struck the Washington D.C. Area, first 9-11 and then the Beltway Sniper Attacks in 2002, I was ill-equipped to handle the negative impact.

At the time of the downturn I lacked two things: strategy, and organization. However, as history has shown, strategy without organization does not win wars.

“Having an efficient bureaucracy is the key determinant of whether a country manages to take advantage of a military revolution… The reason German armies were able to reach the gates of Moscow and Japanese armies the borders of India before being defeated was that the Axis had done a better job of organizing before the war.” – Max Boot, War Made New

The term bureaucracy has a very negative connotation today, typically used to describe slow moving and ineffective governing. However bureaucracy is defined as:

“An organization of non-elected officials of a government or organization who implements the rules, laws, and functions of their institution” – Wikipedia

As it applies to a business, it’s the operational people-infrastructure that keeps a company standing. So you can have the greatest strategy on earth, however if you lack the operational capability to carry it out, you’ll fail. We’ve seen it in wars, and I’ve seen it many times over in business.

How many stories have you heard of companies missing out on the massive buzz a campaign created for them because they didn’t know what to do next? How many businesses today are losing out because they are unsure of how to effectively use social media to connect with their customers one-on-one? How many people do you know that have tried and failed to achieve their goals because they launched into something before planning for both positive and negative results?

As busy entrepreneurs it’s easy for us to get caught up in the delivery of our services. Even if you’re planning on remaining a one-man-band for the rest of your life, you need to document the processes you use so that you can consistently deliver outstanding results for your clients. If you are like me, intent on growing a massive business, then documenting everything is even more important.

Take the time, a few hours a week in the beginning, to write down how you provide services to your clients. Begin building a client database and collecting as much information on each current and potential client as possible. Standardize as much as possible and put it into checklists.

Do this before you launch a campaign so you can reap the rewards rather than falling flat on your face and missing the opportunity you create for yourself.

Depending on your view operations might not be sexy, but it’s what will keep your business from becoming one of the more than 1.4 million that have failed or gone bankrupt over the past 5 years. Make it your priority, and stay standing.


  1. GrantHensel says:

    Great post Robert. I’m the CEO of a startup called Viibrant (, and one of the main realizations I’ve been having is that entrepreneurship isn’t just about building the product, its about building the organization that makes the product. 
    If you’re read Built to Last, Jim Collins calls it “Clock Building, Not Time Telling.”

    •  @GrantHensel that book is a classic as are all of Jim Collin’s books. It’s true that you can have the best product in the world, however if you don’t have a solid company behind it you still won’t get far at all.
      Good luck with your startup Grant, and thanks for commenting.

      •  @RobertDempsey No problem – thanks for posting! One of the first business books I ever read was Good to Great. I’ve probably read it 4 more times since, but I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be exposed to Collins’ ideas for the first time. Set the bar pretty high for stuff I read after that 🙂

  2. MrPeterQuintana says:

    There are a couple of interesting implications in the examples you refer to in this very interesting piece:
    1. That once in place, strategy doesn’t change;
    2. That strategy doesn’t include operationalisation.
    Whilst it is no doubt very true that the majority of businesses ‘do’ strategy in exactly this way, as you and I both know, strategy is not something that is done once. It requires ongoing review, and this should include continuous assessment of risk. And if it doesn’t include execution, then it is just another piece of shelf-ware.

    •  @MrPeterQuintana There are a few ways to look at strategy – short term and long term. Regardless, if one is so strict in their strategy as to be unable to respond to environmental changes, the strategy will result in failure. So I’m not implying that strategy is or should be inflexible. Years of practicing Agile software development has shown me time and again just how flexible a strategy needs to be.
      As to your second point, what is the point of having a strategy if you don’t execute it? I’m sure we both have stories of that happening, and I know from my previous consulting days that while you can lead a horse to water (give them a strategy) you cannot make him drink (execute it).

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