Blitzkrieg Principles for Visionary Companies
Blitzkrieg it is now synonymous with shock tactics which causes the famous German maneuver to get thrown around at any situation where speed is a defining factor. A political party won the elections after scoring low in the polls… Blitzkrieg! A company launches a new product and gains tons of customers “overnight”… Blitzkrieg! The effect of the stratagem, the paralysis resulting from this lighting attack, came to signify its method.
While blitzkrieg was a tactic focused on speed, it would be wrong for any bedroom strategist (like myself) to focus on that characteristic alone and to conclude that speed is all that matters. It is definitely important, but it is important to look deeper at this tactic in order to understand why speed was important in the first place, the core principles behind the strike and how you can employ equivalent tactics in the business world.
Any strategic plan begins with an understanding of the problem that needs to be overcome. So in order to understand Blitzkrieg, we first require an analysis of the German situation before World War II.
Modern blitzkrieg was introduced by the German Army as a rational response to the stagnant trench warfare that characterized most of the fighting on the Western Front during World War I. Battles like Verdun or Passchendaele proved the war was nothing more than a meat grinder, and attacks from both sides only further proved the futility of the conflict.
Such a stalemate is not unique to armed conflict. Businesses can find themselves in similar situations when the status quo is preserved through a lack of innovation that seems to plague all competitors. It’s very hard to spot this situation in the consumer tech industry, but it happens a lot in heavily regulated industries like healthcare and education. If we were to teleport people from just ten years ago to the present day, they would hardly recognize all the tech companies and applications that dominate the news headlines (Snapchat, Instagram, Android or Tesla, either didn’t exist or were in their infancies ten years ago), whereas they would feel right at home in a school or a hospital. Let’s go back to the Germans ….
Germany had suffered tremendously fighting a positional war during World War I, which prompted the Wehrmacht commanders and strategists to find ways to avoid becoming entrenched in such battles in the first place. Blitzkrieg was their solution — a method to smash through enemy lines in a positional confrontation before their opponents even realized what was happening. Using this maneuver Nazi Germany conquered Poland in a month, then subdued France in less than two months, despite France having the larger army and the best tanks in the world at that time.
So what was Blitzkrieg anyway?
Blitzkrieg is simply a swiftly executed encirclement that presents an enemy force with an unenviable choice: annihilation or surrender. The name conveys the speed, the force and the effect of the attack. It builds on a few innovations that the Germans borrowed from the best military thinkers of the time, which they then packed into a coherent, comprehensive tactic:
- The tank was selected as the main weapon. This new military invention was first used at the end of WWI, but it proved to be quite exposed to infantry attacks.
- In order to protect the tanks, and secure the areas penetrated by the German army, motorized infantry would accompany tanks into battle. The Germans believed the only way to defeat an enemy force was to cut it off. Cutting it off required superior mobility relative to the enemy force. The introduction of mechanical means on the battlefield provided the Germans the answer to the deadlocks common in WWI. Tanks and other armored vehicles gave the German Army the ability to force the enemy to react to their new found mobility.
- The Luftwaffe (German Air Forces) and the artillery were also deployed to soften the enemy lines and create chaos right before the tanks rolled in.
- This coordinated effort focused on penetrating weak points in the enemy defenses instead of dissipating the army over wide lines. Blitzkrieg was considered a deep battle tactic, as opposed to the wide tactics armies relied upon during WWI.
- In order to execute such superb coordination the German army used radio communication. It may sound obvious now, but before WWII commanders communicated their complex maneuvers to their forces by waving flags. Yeah, flags.
After an the army penetrated the enemy flank it proceeded to encircle the enemy. Once encircled, the enemy’s line of retreat was severed, thus rendering that force useless. It’s the typical pincer strategy made famous by Hannibal at Cannae and perfected by the Prusac army over the previous decades.
As always there are quite a few business lessons business people can learn from this approach to warfare.
Initiative is this maneuver’s key characteristic as it allows the attacker to set the conditions, the time and the place of the attack. Germans always preferred to fight on their terms, even when they were defending themselves.
“The best defense is a good offense”
- Sun Tzu
This aggressive technique is best used nowadays by visionary companies that accept the task to reshape certain industries. Being first confers the advantages of superior size that comes with being ahead of rivals and allows the business to set industry standards, influence customer preferences, develop a superior cost position, and determine the direction for an entire market.
It’s something we witnessed Apple do after the return of Steve Jobs: the reason we have touch-enabled apps and mobile stores is because Apple took the initiative and was the first to bring these things to the market. Contrast this with Twitter, whose executives found themselves incapable on making any decisions for many years, which led to a lack of innovation that the new management is still working to overcome.
The core principle behind Blitzkrieg was to concentrate the force on a single point. The German called this penetration or breakthrough, and its purpose was to rupture enemy defenses. The main objective: apply overwhelming force at a weak point in the enemy line to force an opening. This opening functions as the first stage of tactical deep battle in its Blitzkrieg form, and it was so effective that the Germans often referred to it as “the beginning of the end”.
A core tenet of any effective strategy is to apply strength to weakness, and Blitzkrieg is a superb illustration of this, but one that not many businesses are good at. A lack of focus is a HUGE problem for startups and incumbents alike. Most companies don’t focus their resources, but instead choose to pursue multiple goals simultaneously.
“You hit somebody with your fist and not with your fingers spread.”
- Heinz Guderian
The requirement for focus of this offense-oriented attack also represents the tactic’s Achilles’ heel. With Operation Barbarossa (the Nazi invasion of Russia) the Germans tried to apply Blitzkrieg on a front that was so wide that any subsequent attempt to encircle the enemy following penetration proved ineffective, leaving huge gaps for the Russian army to respond.
A related aspect of speed in Blitzkrieg is tempo. It builds on the initial penetration and the paralysis of the enemy forces to produce the momentum that in most cases leads to victory. The German army always followed up their initial attacks — the lightning strikes — with more ferocious attacks that created the perception of a rolling thunder.
Similar to momentum on the battlefield, business momentum creates an amplification mechanism. Momentum fosters the perception that everything a business undertakes succeeds effortlessly, as if being blessed by the Gods with out-of-this-world efficiency propels that business to new heights.
- Momentum is built, not discovered by accident. Like Blitzkrieg, it starts with an initial success. It is important for executives to frame the landscape in a way that makes the importance of the accomplishment clear to everyone (by celebrating the event), while also making it clear to employees that this is not the end goal, but rather the first step in a long string of actions that will lead to greater success and triumph.
- Momentum needs to be maintained. For most companies the tailwinds change directions and the momentum disappears without anyone quite realizing what has happened. This is usually the case when the objective was not clearly defined to begin with. In Blitzkrieg the battle can and needs to have one of two outcomes: surrender or total annihilation. Ambiguous victory is never an option. Setting clear and unambiguous objectives is something that executives struggle with and that causes employees to lose their drive along the way.
Blitzkrieg, as practiced by the Wehrmacht during World War II, was a tactical action executed with extreme competence. It involved the coordination of all forces and it had a very small margin of error. But this coordination that made it such a successful tactic is the main thing missed when Blitzkrieg is referenced in day-to-day conversations that focus only on the speed by which a certain position is secured. All the other items we discussed (initiative, focus and tempo) fall apart without this synchronization.
Companies operate in a very similar fashion to military units when it comes to org structures. The army has specialized divisions. Businesses have departments. But instead of focusing on infantry, air or supplies, companies focus on engineering, product, marketing and so on. And the core thing that an executive needs to learn from the application of Blitzkrieg is that all departments need to be synchronized in order for the maneuver to succeed. It may sound obvious considering most executives are familiar with agile methodologies, and more than 70% of companies consider themselves nimble in their approach. Often, however, the actions taken by these same companies contradict how they perceive themselves.
The biggest mistakes made by most companies is that they have just one department (usually product and engineering) that puts Blitzkrieg tactics into practice. Most development teams now operate in sprints, deliver incremental customer value and use estimation methods to frequently update plans. However, very few companies have marketing or sales departments mirroring these methods, which leads to having parts of companies operating out-of-sync, at different paces and on disparate roadmaps. As demonstrated by the Germans during WWII, synchronization acts like a force multiplier, and today it can make the difference for companies competing in crowded markets.
Blitzkrieg changed the way war was fought forever. The military tactic is now a staple of all modern armies, and you can find it applied in almost all conflicts post WWII. It also serves as a blueprint for reshaping markets by visionary companies.