Disruption and Insurgencies – Part 2 – So What?

So what? Whilst Part 1 of this article was an interesting comparison exercise, what can the military learn from the business world where, in some cases, traditional structures and organisations have had success against disruptors, and the Old Wars have given way to the New Wars?

Western militaries are in a very difficult position in the 21st century.  Let us agree with Rupert Smith that war will now only be fought amongst the people, which is the epitome of the counter-insurgency. There have traditionally been two ways that success has been achieved against insurgents (I am deliberately avoiding the word “winning”…).  Firstly, entrust one man with absolute military and civilian power, ask no questions about his methods, and give him a set period of time to achieve his goals, coming home when the mission is complete.  The example I like for this is Malaya, but a number of imperial actions in the 18th-20th centuries from a number of countries would also work.  The second way is to invest vast amounts of resource – time, blood, international political capital, treasure etc – into a campaign, and acknowledge that you will ultimately have to come to some sort of deal with the insurgents.  Examples here are the British government with the IRA, and the Colombian government with the FARC.  As an addendum this method also demands accepting that there will continue to be insurgent-like rumblings long after the agreement has been reached.

The first method is unachievable in the modern age.  Ubiquitous media and increased moral concern mean that no western military that attempted this would retain domestic support.  The second method demands a long-term view that is completely at odds with the short-term political cycle (4 year elections, 24 hour news etc) that politicians are driven by.  Businesses may have similar pressure from shareholders, but they are still far better placed to take a long-term view; Toyota is rumoured to have a 100 year strategy, and in 1988 Warren Buffet stated that Berkshire Hathaway’s ‘favorite holding position is forever’.  The beauty of a long-term view is that, like an investment portfolio, there is more scope to take risk in the short-term as it will likely be balanced out in the long-term. The myopic and risk-averse nature of modern society – Luttwak’s ‘post-heroic society’ – has made it ferociously difficult for the military to take these kind of risks, especially in campaigns where the linkage to domestic security is not as convincing as it could be.

So what lessons can the military take from the way that traditional business has dealt with disruptors – good and bad?

  1. Prepare for the long-term. This is one of the British principles of counter-insurgency, and it requires more than lip-service; General Richards openly stated that the Afghanistan campaign could take 40 years.  The Troubles in NI lasted a similarly long time. Take a lesson from Toyota.
  2. Recognise and learn from your opposition, and understand that although their arguments and actions may be uncomfortable to your sensibilities, it is likely that they are popular somewhere, and with some people. As part of Marriott and Starwood’s merger in 2016 a renewed focus on the kind of customer-focused delivery that had driven AirBnB’s success was developed.  Blockbuster, on the other hand, buried their heads in the sand…
  3. Be prepared to deal with your opposition. Sit down with them, talk about what success looks like for them, conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of your options (leaving no options off the table), and come up with your plan. Market leaders understand what disruptors are doing, and are often happy to seek to acquire them in order to take their market share, get access to proprietary technology, or simply to put it all off-limits to their competition.
  4. Build on your strengths. Despite the success stories of disruptors and insurgents, these are inevitably in part enhanced by Survivorship Bias.  The thousands(+) of organisations that have fallen by the wayside are forgotten.  Established companies and large western militaries have established economies of scale, market share, logistic channels, experience etc – core capabilities – that present a significant challenge to any organisation trying to enter the market or battlespace.  London Business School recently published a good piece on this here.

In summary, the comparisons between industry disruptors and insurgents are numerous – if potentially uncomfortable.  However, it is short-sighted to not try and learn from the experience of others, whatever the sector. Some of the success gained by examples in these two articles may provide some ideas as to how to win have success with disruptive adversaries.


Strategy+Business presents some more ideas, with a focus on digital disruptors, here.