Lessons to Bring Home from Wars and Recessions

By Spitzer, T. Quinn; Tobia, Peter M. | Management Review, November 1991 | Go to article overview

Lessons to Bring Home from Wars and Recessions


Spitzer, T. Quinn, Tobia, Peter M., Management Review


Lessons to Bring Home From Wars and Recessions

Operation Desert Storm hasn't been the only battle fought by the United States recently. The current recession has been waging war on the U.S. economy for the past year. Although seemingly dissimilar situations, many of the lessons learned during the Gulf war apply to managing through today's economic hard times. Executives can learn how to wage their own battles against the recession by following these six management lessons drawn from Desert Storm:

1. Stick to your strategy. The Allied military strategy was clear and consistent, and it guided operations. General Colin Powell's no-nonsense phrase summed it all up: "First we cut off the Iraqi army, then we kill it."

Throughout the campaign, the strategy resonated in everything that was said and done. "We have a plan and we're following it," was the constant refrain heard at daily briefings. Tactics supported the strategy and provided battlefield flexibility to cope with contingencies from poor weather to Scud missiles, and to execute deft ruses such as the mock amphibious landing and the use of special forces to distract the enemy.

Contrast this to the actions that many executives have taken during the current economic downturn. They attempt to scramble through the recession by exploiting tactical advantages and opportunities regardless of strategic fit. Powell and company taught us the importance of adhering to a basic strategic framework while remaining tactically flexible enough to support the strategy. In tough times, don't rush to abandon the organization's strategy; instead ask, what does our strategy say about making tough choices concerning products, markets and resources? And, what indicators about competitors, market conditions and the like do we build into key product and market decisions that will help us stay strategically on course, yet able to adjust to day-to-day contingencies?

2. Keep decision making where the action is. In the early phase of the land war, the 24th Infantry Division (mechanized) found itself accomplishing its entire day's objectives in just four hours. The division commander was faced with the decision to either stay put or continue on. He weighed the options and plowed ahead.

The Norman Schwarzkopf management style of field-based decision making sharply contrasts with the Soviet-style centralism of the Iraqi army and the command-and-control structure of many of our corporations.

Consider this scenario: A salesman representing a manufacturer of glass packaging recently was asked by his major customer to make a new bottle that varied slightly from the one now being supplied. The customer's request went to the sales manager and traveled up two more layers of bureaucracy before landing on the group president's desk. Valuable time was lost and the customer, faced with mounting recessionary pressures, gave his business to a more nimble competitor. This would not have happened to Generals Powell or Schwarzkopf in a similar situation. Their actions in the Gulf were quick, yet decisive. Managers, too, must learn to move quickly to seize the initiative - especially in recessionary periods where decision time shortens - keep opportunity seeking strategically aligned, and be decisive about execution.

3. Get the message out. The Allies controlled the airwaves as effectively as they dominated the airways. Saddam Hussein's inability to push his cause and mobilize opinion during the war vividly illustrates the tactical importance of "talk."

On many days, the Allies held as many as five military briefings. And, they communicated by the book. They told their audience what they knew, what they didn't know, and what they were not prepared to say. The overall strategy was expressed clearly. Tactics remained a closely guarded secret.

In business as in war, a crisis breeds ambiguity, uncertainty and "fog." Stakeholders and staff don't usually do well in a crisis led by silent leaders. …

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