Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mighty Canoes

From the late 1700s into the early 1800s, one of the most strategic locations in North America was the Straights of Mackinac. Located between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, this narrow waterway connects two of the great lakes—Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. It is also not very far from the mouth of Lake Superior. Whoever controlled the Straights of Mackinac controlled the lucrative fur trade, which brought great wealth to whomever was in charge.

To ensure control of the straights, a fort was built on Mackinac Island, located just to the east of the straights. For a time, the British controlled the fort, but after the American Revolutionary war of 1776, it was given to the Americans. The key feature of the fort was the wall of cannons on the south side. These cannons were strong and powerful—able to shoot cannon balls long distances towards attacking war ships, which would by necessity need to approach from the south.

This defensive wall of cannons gave the Americans so much confidence that there did not appear to be a great need to fortify the fort with many soldiers. Only about 60 were deemed necessary. After all, the ships would be blasted away by the cannons before reaching shore, so hand to hand combat seemed remote.

When the War of 1812 was declared, the British saw this as their opportunity to retake Fort Mackinac and regain control of the fur trade. Enlisting the help of their Native Indian allies and some of the fur trappers, the British used mostly canoes to quietly paddle their way to the north side of the island in the middle of the night. They dragged a small cannon onto shore and up the hill towards the fort.

At daybreak, the British fired a single warning shot from the cannon, awakening the American soldiers. The Americans found themselves in quite a predicament. First, their defensive cannons were on the wrong side of the fort. Second, even if they could quickly move them to the other side, they would be worthless, because the cannons were designed to shoot far out into the water, not down the side of the hill. Third, the Americans were well outnumbered by the British, the Indians and the trappers.

As a result, the American commander Porter Hanks surrendered the island to the British without firing a single shot.

Be it armies or businesses, we all tend to fortify our defenses at the point where we believe we are most vulnerable to attack. In the case of the Straights of Mackinac, if an army of warships were to come, they would most likely come up through Lake Huron from the more populated areas to the south. Hence, the fort was built to defend that type of an attack. Thinking like an army, they assumed their primary enemy would be an army just like them—someone who would use warships.

Indians and trappers, however, do not have war ships. They use canoes. As the Indians and trappers were gathering in the region to join up with the British preparing for the attack, they did not appear to be a threat. Indians and trappers canoed through the area all the time. They were not soldiers.

Although a warship cannot attack Mackinac Island from the north, canoes can. Because the Americans were only prepared for a conventional attack by like-minded soldiers, they were unprepared for a northerly attack from what appeared to be harmless canoes. Instead, they turned out to be mighty canoes.

This same problem often happens in business. Our best laid strategic defenses turn out to be worthless because they prepare us for the wrong type of war.

The problem here is that we tend to look in the wrong direction when it comes time to create a strategic defense. The problem is twofold:

1) Looking Backward Rather Than Forward
2) Looking Inward Rather than Outward

Each of these will be looked at separately and then shown how they worked together to hinder a recent battle in the business world.

1) Looking Backward Rather than Forward
There is a tendency to believe that the next strategic battle will be fought in a similar manner to the battles of the past. The expectation is that relatively similar weapons will be used and that relatively similar tactics will be used. Therefore, when preparing a defense, there is a tendency to prepare to do a better job against what we have seen in the past. In other words, our preparation makes us ready to win a war that is already over.

History is shown that each new major war is fought with a different type of weapon and a completely different set of tactics. These render defenses prepared for fighting wars the old way obsolete and relatively useless.

For example, after World War I, France spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing a strong defense against any future attack by Germany. It was designed under the assumption that Germany would attack the second time the same way they did the first time—with slow, protracted, stationary battles. France was confident that if Germany tried the WWI tactics again, they would fail against the French defense. However, in WWII, Germany used a new mobile “blitzkrieg” approach for which the French were not prepared. The French defense proved to be worthless.

The Americans at Fort Mackinac expected a warship attack, because that was the traditional approach of the past. They were not prepared for a new type of war using canoes.

Rather than looking backwards in time to find our inspiration for strategic defenses, we need to look forward and anticipate how the next battle might look, and how it will be different from past battles. That is why a key component of strategic planning involves spending time trying to envision potential future scenarios, to answer questions, like:

A. What the future environment will be like?
B. How consumer needs and desires will evolve?
C. What non-tradition opportunities and threats could crop up which better fit the future environment?
D. What will it take to win in that future world?

One thing we probably count on is the fact that what worked in the past will not work in the future. Therefore, we need to prepare ourselves for new types of battles with new types of tools. Just as the Americans at Mackinac should not have rested in the confidence that the big cannons would always protect them, businesses should not rest in the fact that the tools which worked for them in the past will always for them in the future.

2) Looking Inward Rather than Outward
The American soldiers made the mistake of thinking that their enemy would be a lot like them—professional soldiers trained to fight traditional battles. Instead, they got Indians and fur trappers. Businesses do the same thing in thinking that our enemies will be similar to us.

If you are the cola leader, like Coke, you may see the enemy as another cola, like Pepsi cola and prepare to win the cola wars. Instead, the new enemy is sports drinks, fortified beverages, energy drinks and the like. Pepsi caught on to seeing the potential new enemy as being a non-cola sooner than Coke and has reaped the benefits.

In many cases, the most potent enemy does not look like us at all. Rather than looking inward at our own narrowly defined industry to find enemies, we need to look outside our industry. Strategic thinking can help us find the new enemies lurking outside our traditional industry, ready to gobble up our market share.

Newspapers Vs. the Internet
For most of the second half of the 20th century, newspapers in the United States had a virtual monopoly in their home market. They were strong; they were powerful. They were confident that nobody was going to be able to start up a new newspaper that would cause any serious damage to their near-monopoly. Owing the local newspaper was like owning the big cannon, ready to take on anyone who wanted to build a rival newspaper.

Then, at the end of the 20th century, the internet started to get used by people other than scientists and researchers. To the powerful newspapers, the internet looked like little canoes going by—no big threat. After all, we’re in the newspaper business. The internet is not a newspaper…not even close. Who would ever place an ad on something like that?

Eventually, the internet became a very viable information source. It used new tactics that were foreign to the newspapers:

1) Fresh news available 24 hours a day.
2) Ability to interact with the news and other readers of the news real-time, using Web 2.0 technology
3) Customize the news so that you only get the news you wanted
4) Combine news from multiple sources
5) Make the news available for free

These young internet upstarts did not act like newspaper people. What’s the matter with them.

Well, now the newspapers are fighting for their lives against the digital world. Because they looked backwards to the past (this is how the news had been done and will always be done) and they looked inward at the newspaper industry (instead of looking outside for threats), they caught on to what was happening too late. The mighty canoes of the internet are winning the war.

A good strategic defense needs to be based on looking forward (at what the new tactics for success will be) and outward (at players who are not a part of your traditional industry). Strategic planning is a process which helps one look forward and outward.

Of course, traditional internet players cannot sit back and think they’ve won the war any more than the newspapers before them. New threats, new tactics, new players will show up to threaten them as well. For example, will mobile phones change the rules so that the money is made at the carrier level instead of at the content level? Will users take over the content and leave out the internet content players? And so on…

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