Business Strategy / Military Strategy

Posted: July 5, 2010 in Powerful Ideas
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Apple introduced the iPad in April and, most recently, a new version of the iPhone. Both of these products have been acknowledged as category leaders in the consumer (and increasingly business) IT space.

First in 2007 and now in 2010, Apple has completely reinvented two product categories by combining previously disparate features into single devices. The iPad and iPhone can be called breakthrough products. Why breakthrough? Because Apple went completely around the competition by inventing new product categories. They didn’t bother trying to imitate others or to compete on their terms.

This is a perfect example of some of the interesting parallels between military and business strategy. The military equivalent of a breakthrough product (or service) is to completely outflank a defensive position in order to wreak havoc behind enemy lines. When truly successful, the entrenched forces must leave the relative strength and safety of their defences to fight off the attacker’s breakthrough.

As for the attacking force, they must be capable of exploiting the breakthrough by staying continually ahead of the defenders, disrupting and dislocating their efforts at stabilizing the defence. The equivalent in business is the ability to stay at least one step ahead of the competition and to keep the pressure on them.

The way to do this is to keep innovating new products and services and also to continually upgrade the breakthrough product. This is because imitators will eventually be able to replicate the main features of the original breakthrough product. They may even surpass it in some respects. However, as long as the company that introduced the breakthrough product can keep innovating and improving it, they can keep the competition off balance and maintain – even reinforce – the temporary advantage gained at product introduction.

The evolution of the iPhone is a great illustration of the parallels between business and military breakthroughs. When the iPhone was first introduced in 2007, it was acknowledged immediately as a new type of product, even though many of its features already existed and its capabilities were still embryonic. However, other cell phone makers were thrown off balance. Apple has kept one step ahead of the competition since then by introducing annual upgrades.

However, what really allowed Apple to keep the competition off balance was the creation of the App Store in 2008. Up to that point, the battle for the smart phone could have gone another way. But the App Store gave a marked advantage to Apple, because it allowed the company to consolidate its position by solidifying the loyalty of early adopters. This is equivalent to breaking through enemy lines then setting up a fortification to defend your advantage. It also leverages the know how of many other companies by letting them develop apps and profit from the iPhone ecosystem. This is equivalent to multiplying your fighting strength by digging in and using air power and artillery to break up counterattacks.

The iPad is still in its early days, but it has benefited greatly from the pre-existing application ecosystem by building on the iPhone’s operating system. The combination of capabilities it has introduced to the market has led many other manufacturers to abandon their tablet projects, or to go back to the drawing board. In either case, however, Apple has once again broken through to another level of technical proficiency and is wreaking havoc behind enemy lines.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Quotes and reproduction permitted with proper attribution.

  1. jphfavre says:

    Richard, you are definitely right. Military and business strategy are totally connected. i remember once to have read that the best book on Marketing was written by Prussian general, Karl von Clausewitz, entitled “On war” in 1832. Best. JP

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