Characteristics of the Offense
The military knows that plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. So how do you keep making and re-making plans to win?
Surprise. Concentration. Audacity. Tempo.
In competition, you’re always in one of three states.
Implicit in that is the idea that you need to be deliberate and thoughtful about the state you’re in, otherwise things are just...happening to you. If things are just happening, then you’re not shaping where you and your organization will be in the next day, week, year, or longer.
If you’re not shaping it, then you won’t get to where you want to be.
Today is for offensive shaping. The Army has a lot of thoughts on Offensive Maneuvers (at least 150 pages worth for starters), but what I think is most helpful to understand is what is known as the Characteristics of the Offense. These describe the things you want to generally achieve with everything you do while on Offense.
If you’re making a decision and the result will generally achieve one or more of these things, you’re probably gonna be better off than before. Conversely, if you do the opposite, you’re probably going to be worse off.
Now, there’s a time and a place for brilliant master strategies that predict the nth chess move in the engagement, but straight up most of the time if you can just make 10 decisions in a row that make you better than where you are today than you’re going to be in a phenomenal position.
Plus, this has the impossible to overstate advantage of being way freaking faster than detailed, big brain planning cycles. To quote an extremely effective asshole -
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”
— George Patton
How do you get an offensive microplan together quickly? By letting these guide you:
Attacking the enemy in a time/place he does not expect or in a manner for which he is unprepared
Surprise delays enemy reactions, overloads and confuses enemy command and control (C2), induces psychological shock, and reduces the coherence of the enemy’s defenses. Tactical surprise is more difficult to achieve once hostilities begin, but it is still possible. The commander achieves tactical surprise by attacking in bad weather and over seemingly impassible terrain, conducting feints and demonstrations, making rapid changes in tempo, and employing sound operations security (OPSEC) measures.
What does this mean for your company? It dares you to be bolder with your plans and strategy. You have a finite amount of resources to build your company and everything you do should be raising the bar in your industry. Take Apple’s recent M1 Pro Max announcement for example.
With one release, they raised the standard of everything Mac related moving forward. Critics expected the move away from Intel to be potentially crippling and Apple responded with a resounding clarion call of quality hardware architecture surprising even the most die hard Apple fans. Now everyone else is playing catch up.
The massing of overwhelming combat power to achieve a single purpose
In the Army, this means organizing your units in a way that you’ve coordinated cross fires and other assets to maximize the damage at the one, most crucial part of the battlefield because there is always one Decisive Point, that if retained, provides a leader with a marked advantage over her opponent.
Military Decisive Points are things like critical hills or communication nodes or artillery positions, but can be reframed in the startup context.
“The most important thing for startups to do is to focus. Because there are so many things you could be doing, one of them is the most important. You should be doing that, and not ANY of the others.” - Paul Graham
A plan that is effectively concentrated is one that’s focused on the one thing that’s going to make you win. Period.
A simple plan, boldly executed
This one goes hand in hand with surprise. Military history is filled with audacious plans and maneuvers that turned the tide of battle. Alexander and Darius, Nelson at Trafalgar, the Allied Landing in Normandy, and so many more show how the power of imagination is the biggest (and cheapest) force multiplier you have at your disposal.
The history of technology is filled with audacious plans as well and no one demonstrates this better than the newly minted richest man in the world Elon Musk.
Take his Secret Master Plan for Tesla he published in 2006:
Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
or his current mission at Spacex to land humans on Mars by 2026.
No matter your opinion of him, there’s no denying the audacity of his vision.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and you stand to gain the most (by definition) from your most audacious plans.
The consistent and persistent momentum necessary to retain the initiative
Note: The tempo of your operations must be fast enough to prevent effective counteraction
Tempo is often misunderstood in the startup context as “Move Fast and Break Things”. I think this is close, but misses a critical component of rhythm and also undercounts the value of deliberate action.
“Move Fast and Break Things” is just a linguistic device that makes people comfortable with failure and iterative growth and it’s a phenomenal tool to build that culture. It’s not actually what you want to do, it’s just a compromise that organizations have made internally because people are so conditioned to be afraid of failure that they refuse to do it unless expressly retrained.
Maintaining Tempo is building a series of compounding victories without losing stride or focus.
This can be one win a day, a week, or even once a quarter, but clearly stacking the wins is how you bring overwhelming force to the current engagement you’re in and how you bring even more overwhelming force to the engagement you will fight in a year.
Amazon is one of the most impressive examples of this. As Bezos said himself - “All overnight success takes about 10 years...You proceed adaptively, step by step, you figure it out, you have a success, then you double down on that success, you figure out what customers want.”
Another way of thinking about it is that tempo is the inverse of a “zero” or wasted day.
This classic Reddit wisdom applies to startups just as well as it does to the people in them. No matter what, move the ball forward today. Even if it’s just an inch.
No. Zero. Days.
Sometimes, you’re up to your eyeballs in To Do Lists and pitch decks and you can’t...quite...check anything off that list. Take that paralyzing anxiety and find a nibble to chew on.
Then tomorrow find the next one.
You’ve started maintaining Tempo
So build your offensive plans with surprise, concentration, audacity, and tempo.
SCAT for short.
I know it’s a dumb mnemonic, but you’ll never forget it now!
I hope this added value to your day.
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