These are chaotic times for businesses of all sizes, with supply chains disrupted, online buying through the roof, and foot-traffic at near-zero in many areas. Businesses of all kinds are still wrestling with the economic wreckage that has accompanied the pandemic, and the need to understand what the post-COVID-19 world will look like. That’s left many companies thinking about how to pull off a “pandemic pivot,” and adapt their business models — but amidst so much uncertainty, how can you figure out what your customers want, or what contingencies your company should be preparing to overcome?
When it comes to making effective decisions with limited information, some of the best role-models are to be found in the U.S. military. In recent months, I’ve interviewed Navy captains, fighter pilots, special-forces operatives, and other military experts to gain a better understanding of how they cope with the “fog of war” — a term the military uses to describe the uncertainty and confusion that inevitably occurs in combat. Along the way, I’ve picked up some important pointers that can be applied to the challenges now facing our country’s business leaders.
- Understand the problem
Before you can solve your problem, you’ve got to understand it. In the military, that might mean using remote sensors, sending out reconnaissance missions, or turning to intelligence operatives for insight into what’s happening on the ground. Like businesses, the military must identify the real, actionable knowledge obscured by a flood of often-irrelevant information. Business leaders should similarly use every tool at their disposal: follow economic projections, identify analysts or strategic partners who can provide insights on policy developments, and above all talk to your customers about what they’re feeling, thinking, needing, and expecting. Let your customers’ changing needs shape the direction your business moves in, and you’ll find the battle’s halfway won.
- Understand your assets
Generals don’t try to storm a beach with a submarine or launch an airstrike with a squadron of tanks, and in the business world, too, you need to make sure you’re playing to your strengths, and using the right tools for the right jobs. One example: we recently helped the owners of a shuttered bar in San Diego to understand that their product wasn’t just alcohol — it was an experience. Based on that insight into their own core strengths, their “pandemic pivot” became clear: the bar started offering mixology webinars and other virtual experiences. This pivot is generating useful income, and fostering loyalty. When the lockdown lifts, the bar’s customers will be back in droves.
- Get comfortable with imperfect knowledge
The critical point of the “fog of war” concept is that you never have perfect or complete knowledge. Events unfold quickly, so you have to make decisions based on the best information you can gather in the time you’ve got. Donald Rumsfeld drew criticism when he talked about “known unknowns,” but understanding what information you need, what information you have, and where you’ve got to make guesses or assumptions is vital. General Colin Powell’s guidance to his intelligence staff — “Tell me what you know; tell me what you don’t know; tell me what you think; but always tell me which is which!” — is a great way to deliberately test the information you’ve got. Don’t succumb to analysis paralysis: work with what you’ve got, and then get some boots on the ground.
- Plan strategically but focus on execution
We often help businesses solve tough problems by running wargaming exercises, with one team assigned to figure out a plan of attack, and another team assigned to offer counter-proposals and uncover any weaknesses in the suggested strategy. What makes these sessions so effective isn’t the initial planning and brainstorming — it’s the back-and-forth that follows, as teams challenge each other to answer the tough questions, and focus both on what to do and how to do it. You’ll often learn more by executing a plan than you will by sitting in an armchair cogitating about it. As General George Patton said, “a good plan violently executed today is better than a great plan next week.”
Develop a bias to action: The U.S. Marines say that they’re biased to action: better to take any action, and keep your team goal-oriented and on-the-move, they argue, than to delay and lose momentum while you fuss over the fine details of a contingency plan. No doubt many business owners currently feel surrounded and overwhelmed. Take comfort from Marine General “Chesty” Puller’s words when his 1st Marine Division was surrounded and outnumbered 22-to-one in Korea: “Excellent. Now we can attack in every direction.”
That doesn’t mean acting recklessly. It’s okay to take a minute to check your parachute before you jump out of the plane. But remember that if you surrender to inaction, you’ll never find your way out of the fog of war. Only by taking decisive action, and course-correcting as you go, can you hope to fight your way through these uncertain times.
“Chaotic times demand a bias toward decisive action.” – Greg Shepard, CEO of BOSS Capital Partners.