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Are You Preparing For The Last War?

Anyone who studies military history eventually comes across the aphorism that generals are always preparing for the last war. This implies that military strategists rely too heavily on the past in formulating their plans and building readiness. While there are certainly many examples of overreliance on historical precedent and experience, there are also numerous instances of foresight and adaptability in the heat of battle. They shouldn't ignore the past, but neither should they live only in the present. Military strategists and tacticians must analyze their experiences and study history for lessons, but it's also crucial that they consider the present and the future to win their wars, campaigns, battles, and engagements.

Take the following example. During the 1920s and 30s, French military strategists obsessed about repeating their traumatic First World War experience, and this blinded them to German weaknesses at the start of the Second World War. Germany also drew lessons from the Great War, but the country's high command adeptly exploited French and Allied vulnerabilities and expectations as the conflict unfolded, while shaping events through superior readiness, strategy and manoeuvre. Thus, Germany conquered France and the Low Countries in a lightning campaign, which knocked them out of the war by the summer of 1940.

The search for positive or negative examples in military history can often turn into nothing more than an exercise in facile and hackneyed over generalization. When I attended a graduate seminar in military history with a professor who specialized in First World War strategy, he commented offhandedly that French generals had little regard for their soldiers' lives. His evidence for this assertion? They experienced very heavy casualties; offensives and plans were mostly inconclusive; and when the French did achieve success to some extent they seemed unable to exploit it to its fullest. I responded that he was Monday morning quarterbacking, that he looked at the situation with 20/20 hindsight.

If there was one thing drilled into me as an army officer analyzing past actions or studying military history, it was the need to put myself in the boots of those making the decisions and formulating the plans for future action. What were the political, diplomatic, strategic, and logistical conditions at that point of the war, the campaign, the battle, the engagement? What were the pressures on the leaders? How reliable and capable were their forces, their chain of command, and their weaponry? How was morale? What were their fears, hopes, and ambitions? What were the enemy's capabilities and intentions? Most important of all, what did the decision-makers know and not know at the time they had to make their decisions and commit to a course of action?


Business leaders face analogous challenges to those of military leaders. Obviously, there is no comparing the stakes. Businesses serve customers for profit under competitive conditions. Military forces are engaged in a life and death struggle in a world of irreconcilable interests and conflicts. But in both cases, leaders must make critical decisions and direct their organizations to achieve success despite limited information, imperfect knowledge, and glaring uncertainties. They must both weigh rewards, risks, opportunities, and threats within their respective domains. Just like military strategists and tacticians, business executives and entrepreneurs must learn from the past, but they can't rely on it to the exclusion of other tools and techniques. This realization is encapsulated in the common maxim, "What got you here won't get there." This implies an intuitive understanding that success comes from balancing past learning, present insight, and prudent foresight.

As a strategy and leadership consultant, I'm in a privileged position to observe businesses persisting in ineffective and inefficient practices. I often hear "this is what made me/us successful," or "this is how I/we do things around here." They say they need to change their methods, but they stick with what they believed has worked in the past. The key word here is believed. My response to this belief is, "How do you know your past methods were all that efficient and effective in the first place?" and "How do you know you couldn't have done even better?"

Even more to the point, "What will you do now to improve your performance, to grow, to seize and maintain the initiative?" and "What will you do in the future?" It's one thing to learn from the past, but it's quite another to adapt and evolve on the fly as you formulate new strategies and tactics along with the plans to execute them.


Richard Martin is the president and founder of Alcera Consulting, where he applies his military training as a Canadian Army officer to a range of business applications. He is the author of the book, Brilliant Manoeuvres: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles. For more information on Richard and his services visit:
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Author:Martin, Richard
Publication:Canadian Defence Review
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2017

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