Your Corporate War Footing: Lessons from Grandma

Your Corporate War Footing: Lessons from Grandma

There are many management texts around that leverage from wartime battle strategies and do so in a powerful way. Most are about gaining new territory, beating the competition, out-thinking the opposition.

No management books that come to mind focus on survival as a core capability. Talk of survival doesn’t hold the glamour and glory of victory, but in times like today, it is, well, kind of important.

Let’s face it, thousands of managers all over the world are making tough choices to ensure the survival of their organisations. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the unemployment rate jumped by almost 1.5% from March 2008 – March 2009. At around 6% some economists are even predicting a 10% future! This is purely driven by organisational cost-cutting (i.e. survival) strategies. But how many of these cost cutting strategies are truly strategic, versus being operational or reactive choices.

And who could blame managers. They have hardly been prepared for moments like this. Few management texts cover it, and I don’t see it covered in business schools. Seth Godin’s recent blog post about car specs (we buy based on accelerating power not stopping power) applies equally here. We are all trained at how to scale up, but poorly trained at how to scale down…rapidly, efficiently, effectively.

Wartime history does provide an excellent guide. And it is no wonder, for it is war, and all its horror, that has created so much innovation. During wartime, leaders make tough choices. Some of these choices involve radical downscaling to channel resources to where it is needed most. Here are the principles they apply:

    • Survival is paramount: Direct all resources directly towards victory and towards survival. Leaders in war economies know that ensuring all school classrooms get a new paint job every year will be irrelevant if the war is lost. They invest resources elsewhere even if it causes some temporary hardship. Being in an economic winter means that we maintain only the basic functions for survival. Think of a bear in hibernation.


    • Do not destroy capacity: Most wartime planners know to take the long view by making choices that accelerate a return to normality at the end of hostilities. This means that they would generally try to:


      • Prevent the destruction of civilian infrastructure (rail lines, roads,
      • Shutdown important, but non-essential, national projects in a way that they can be resumed with least effort
      • Retain the skills and knowledge of key people by temporarily redeploying them elsewhere. (For example, redeploy an engineer to rebuild destroyed bridges, not send him in as a soldier – he will then be available and ready to rebuild the nation once the war is over). At the end of our economic winter, there will be spring. Growth will return, and we want to enjoy that growth, not be hampered by destruction at our own hands.


  • Investigate new ways of doing things: War is a gold-mine of innovation. The necessity breeds it, the urgency to find new ways. A huge amount of the everyday objects around us started life in a military lab somewhere. But you say that a lack of resources in a cost-cutting environment prevents it? Yet that is the very constraint that breeds it.

OK, maybe it is not as bad as a war right now. Although for some it could be close. There are, however, some striking parallels and therefore some lessons. In summary:

    • Strategise for survival: Ensure all your choices contribute to staying afloat.


    • Plan for recovery: Do your best not to destroy vital infrastructure or deplete your human resource to such an extent that recovery will be almost impossible.


  • Innovate: Find cheaper and more efficient ways to perform core functions

Oh and the last point, maybe you shouldn’t talk about adopting wartime strategies, it might freak out your colleagues and team. But you do need to get them on board. The picture above, is a picture of a once famous WWII poster and slogan: “Better pot luck with Churchill today than humble pie with Hitler tomorrow!”. It motivated, at a time of scarcity, for citizens to play their part too. As it is through them where that innovation will be born.

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