The First Strategy of War
by Tom FitzGerald

"The first strategy of war is an armed force that is fully mobilized and consumed with the desire to win. Without that, all other strategies are vain." Napoleon

Today, we are all of us at war. It is a war of business rather than arms, but a war, a real war. Of victory, survival, defeat, loss.

The very environment in which we work teems with change; change that is greater and more rapid than we have ever seen in the history of business; change both in business and in society of a magnitude that in the past was driven only by the trauma and crisis of war.

And this change comes from all sides and feeds upon itself, driven by technology, especially that of the Internet and the web.

This lightning change of technology is breeding chaos and crisis, disaster and opportunity for every business and industry; stripping market share and customers from the slow, destroying the concept of cost barriers, speeding the evolution of new competitive models. And breeding fear of being dot-commed. And all this now compounded by economic slowdown.

The need for urgent, aggressive and preemptive adaptation has become normal.

Companies of every size in every industry are struggling to make sense of this maelstrom, to conceive of ways that will provide for them a future, to instill and drive change not just through the corpus of their company but through its very spirit. For just meeting the competition will not be enough. Soon, it seems, all companies must be either quick or dead. For we are at war.

But to succeed in war, we must learn the ways of war, master its core strategies. And this means mastering the very first strategy: Mobilizing the management teams into a business force that is motivated, driven and obsessed with creating corporate success; and operating together, not just in harmony, but in powerful, operational resonance.

For the last fifty years or so, strategic planning has been portrayed as the single greatest tool of business survival and change and every business school graduate is taught it. So it is not surprising that so many managing officers and CEOs are turning to it.

But, in spite of all that is taught and all that is claimed for it, strategic planning has grave limitations. And in this war for survival these limitations are proving fatal.

What strategic planning can do, we all know: It can provide some kind of direction, but not when the environment is changing rapidly; it can describe desired results; and when done really well, it lays out step-by-step the actions that should be taken to achieve results.

But there are things that strategic planning does not do,and these have become crucial to corporate survival.

  It does not mobilize.
It does not motivate.
It does not capture the imagination of managers.
It does not set fire to imagination.
It does not trigger ambition or determination.
It does not create or release the energy needed for competition, for war.
It does not create flexibility in managers or agility in the company.
It does not create the commitment or desire to win.
And, above all, when the resources for change are so needed, it does not generate profits.

Strategic planning is never associated with increased profits - a strange and disturbing fact that is rediscovered every five or so years. Even business re-engineering (that recent darling of pop management) with its poor 30% success rate does better.

So what is a CEO to do? Is there a way to generate the attributes within companies and managers that Napoleon so cherished in his armies and his officers?

Fortunately, a process exists that CEOs and managing officers, even boards, can use. It is called Corporate Renewal. Or Preemptive Turnaround. Or Putting Fire to the Corporate Belly. And it has been proven time after time in the spirit and on the bottom lines of companies large and small. Even government!

At its simplest, the renewal process has just three components:

1) Uncovering and freeing the competitive spirit of the company. Bringing to the surface the real issues, the hidden issues, the secrets, the demons of the organization. Depending on the level of readiness, these can be many or few, severe or mild. There may be strategic, financial or operational issues among them. But always they will have personalities and person-to-person relationships at their root.

2) Catharsis: Causing the management of the company to deal with the issues of the company until they are resolved. ALL the issues must be dealt with, but the core issues, the gut issues, the people and relationship issues must be dealt with first.

3) Commitment/Investment. Transferring the energies released into a gut commitment to a new future, a new behavior, a new flexibility and a new level of performance.

There are just two requirements for it to work:

  The managing officer must have self confidence;
The managing officer must have a deep desire to win.

Nothing else is needed. The process does the rest.

This all sounds easier said than done. How, for instance, do you get the senior managers to agree to do it in the first place? How do you get at the real issues? How do you do this without making mortal enemies? How do you light fires under the tails of friends of many years? How do you make them talk? Change? But it is simple.


Not by chance, the renewal process is also a planning process. Granted, it is a planning process that addresses more than the usual topics, and is conducted in an unusual way, and radically changes organizations. But it is planning and very detailed plans are generated. Managers understand about planning. Being asked to participate in a planning process is to be expected. Calling it Entrepreneurial Planning, though inadequate, would be accurate.

Get at the real issues

As part of the "planning" process, have your managers and supervisors take an hour and answer a detailed questionnaire, anonymously. It should cover not just the typical goals and performance issues but should address a wide range of performance drivers* (see note below) and include the issues that frequently plague managers and the effects of these issues on the company. If you use a standard questionnaire, tailor it to make sure the gut issues of your company are included.

Tabulate the results in a manner that allows the participants to see the answers by individual, though they don't know who. They will soon recognize their own answers. This alone becomes a powerful lever for change.

Board members might answer the questionnaire too. The process you use for managers can work just as well for boards.

First evaluate the responses (but read the comments last). Study the results until you can track each individual, at least on your senior staff, over the entire range of issues. Averages and chi squares and other sophisticated measures don't matter here, individuals do. And your understanding of their motivations will make the difference. The usual automated survey reports seldom permit this.

Then mark each issue of consequence. We use a simple, understandable star system for this. We designate issues as being one *, two **, three *** stars. Like fire alarms. And then lay out the plan of attack, which issue to deal with first, second, third.

Depending on the survey results, schedule a one or two day session with the management team; you, immediate reports and perhaps two or three more; a dozen people say. Remove the tables from the room. Give no one anything to hide behind. We use an open ark of chairs facing large screens.

Resolving the issues

This does require some skill and if you know there is significant pathology or you want to save time, use an outside catalyst. Then begin. One issue at a time, bring their responses up, keep them before their eyes, and cause them to deal with them.

  What is the real answer here?
What did we mean by this?
What did this person (anonymous but recognizable as an individual) mean? What are the consequences?
What is the real answer?

Don't let them slide off. Hold the mirror. On the gut issues they must talk about them emotionally. Intellect is never enough. Sooner or later on each issue they will say, "This is what we are, God help us." You are waiting for the God Help Us. They have accepted, viscerally, what the issue really is. And let it go. Catharsis!

This is the crisis point, the point of change (on this issue). The energy that was tied up is now in the room. A catharsis has happened. You must move it immediately into a new vision. Ask, What do we need/want? How can we do it. How do you phrase that?

As they speak, record their words on the big screen. Sooner or later you will hear them say, "This is who we will be". You are waiting for the will, their visceral commitment to the vision. Everyone will know it when it happens. Then you ask:

  What's the action?
Who will do it?
When will it be done?
Who will follow up?
Do you (by name) commit to doing this?

Then, and only then, is the energy invested in the future. Cathexis!

The process is gloriously simple. And it works. It takes only the desire to do what is right and the knowledge that in the bright light of day politics are shamed and shrivel, dragons wither and die and secrets lose their power. And their power is released into the life of the organization and its future.

*Note. A list of the more than 120 leading performance drivers and indicators that FitzGerald Associates use in their pre-emptive turnaround work is available through the website below.

Tom FitzGerald is a bottom-line oriented, consulting management engineer, who specializes in effecting major improvements in profitability, performance and growth. He has worked with CEOs and COOs of more than 200 organizations in the US, Canada and Europe, ranging in size from start-up to Fortune Five Hundred. By education, a physicist. By birth, Irish. By instinct and experience, a business catalyst. He has been president of FitzGerald Associates since 1976.

More like this in Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 1999 - 2001 by Tom FitzGerald. All rights reserved.

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