This post is a follow on to my prior post about business and the operational art. In this post, I discuss what a military campaign is, how it can be structured and organized, and then explore ways to address how to implement a business strategy.

A military campaign is a means to achieve strategic objectives and provide a way to organize and win at the tactical level. One way to envision and rationalize this process is through operational art. In Unified Land Operations, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, operational art is defined as “the pursuit of strategic objectives through the arrangement of tactical actions.” Operational art is the doctrinal approach to overcoming the ambiguity of a “complex, ever changing, and uncertain operational environment.” Thus, according to the US Army, operational art is concerned with connecting tactical actions to achieve strategic objectives based on stated ends, ways, and means.

The national strategic objectives are set by the President and his Cabinet, and are expressed in terms of the elements of national power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic). These strategic objectives are used to determine the theater-specific end states, which are then interpreted by the commander, using both the mission analysis process and his years of experience, to define his vision of the intermediate objectives, effects, and tasks that are specific to his area. This vision becomes the basis for the resulting campaign plan generated as a product of the planning process to express a scheme of maneuver, allocated resources, objectives, and timings.

A key aspect of the campaign is that logistics and supporting activities are all included in the plan, and that the planning process is iterative and evolving to reflect the changing operational environment since traceability from national interests to tactical actions is rarely static. In Campaign Design for Winning the War… and the Peace, we are reminded that “military strategic objectives are rarely enduring, and campaign design must be sufficiently agile to adjust to their fluctuations. We must also understand the nature and effect of military objectives and end-states, which are not really ends as such, but rather interpretations of the ends.” Therefore, flexibility, iteration, and reactiveness are key aspects of campaign design.

At this point, it helps to describe the differences between designing the campaign, and planning the campaign. I have a planning vs. design blog post coming up, but for now, it is important to understand that here, design is used to frame the problem and to contemplate the form and structure of the campaign, whereas the campaign plan details the method and means for executing the campaign. As the US Joint Staff’s Planner’s Handbook for Operational Design additionally discusses, “operational art encompasses intuition, an unquantifiable talent for applying a level of insight that underpins the commander’s decisions on all aspects of joint operations. Operational design provides a methodology that extends operational art’s creative thinking and intuition.”

The campaign plan contains several elements that work together to give a common structure, most importantly the objectives. Objectives are defined, decisive, and attainable goals that all operations and activities within the theater focus on achieving. In order to allow subordinate commanders flexibility, objectives are stated as an “end”—the ways and means to achieve them are not directed. The commander’s defined effects, expressed in terms of the objective, are used to connect the objective to stated tasks in order to achieve the desired end state. This process ensures the commander has clarity in terms of what needs to be done, and that subordinate units and commanders know how their efforts will contribute to the overall objectives. This shared understanding allows for creativity and independent action during the chaos when fighting against a reacting enemy as well as while working through the other elements of friction that emerge when a plan confronts reality.

Another aspect to emphasize is that the military method of campaign design and planning, although it can be coated in metaphors and wall coverings, is fundamentally and essentially a pragmatic process. A military commander doesn’t need or want a vague idea about what might happen or emphasis on how they should be feeling while crossing a river. Rather, they need to know facts about the enemy, what needs to be done to them, and if there are any constraints or requirements to accomplish on the way. In this aspect, there are many similarities between the needs of a military organization and a business unit. The 5-W’s (Who, What, Where, When, Why) suffice equally well for both, just as neither group wants anyone telling them “how” to do anything.

Business as well as military teams that execute strategy need the same type of information. Therefore, we can now think about using aspects from the military campaign process to understand how to implement a business strategy. First, it’s useful to define a business strategy. Henry Mintzberg, in 1993 and 1994, examined strategic planning, originally defined in the 1960s as a formulaic method to both devise and implement strategies. In The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, he writes that “planning is a formalized procedure to produce an articulated result, in the form of an integrated system of decisions. What to us captures the notion of planning above all—most clearly distinguishes its literature and differentiates its practice from other processes—is its emphasis on formalization, the systemization of the phenomenon to which planning is meant to apply.”

Mintzberg’s point is that planning, including the formalized process and the planning function, isn’t a substitute for strategic thinking, and that effective strategy shouldn’t come from this formalized top-down process, rather that strategy is either an “emergent” pattern or a deliberate “perspective.” Additionally, “Strategy-making is an immensely complex process involving the most sophisticated, subtle and at times subconscious of human cognitive and social processes. While hard data may inform the intellect, it is largely soft data that generate wisdom. They may be difficult to ‘analyze,’ but they are indispensable for synthesis —the key to strategy making.” For Mintzberg, it makes sense to separate the process of creating strategy from the planning and implementation process.

Comparing the original question from my previous post with the campaign design process, the pitfall many organizations fall into is the misconception that SWOT and gap analysis suffices for strategy creation, not static implementation of a pre-existing plan. Additionally, when the analysis lacks an iterative and creative aspect, the results will fall behind the needs of the market and will reflect outdated assumptions. By separating the design aspect of strategy creation from the planning aspect of the implementation, the business will be able to better conceive their strategy and better execute the resulting plan.

However, one critical aspect is missing from the analogy. In the military model, the campaign design process asks the theater commander to do mission analysis to create objectives that match strategic end states. If a business does not have someone responsible for achieving the objectives who also has the authority to commit resources to execute the resulting plan, there is a gap between the planning and execution. Fundamentally, this responsibility should be not allocated to a staff member or a planner. Instead it needs to be someone who can “own” the result. One of the ways to achieve this would be to adopt a product-based organization, where the product owner would have the responsibility for designing, producing, and supporting the product. This has the additional benefit that the person responsible would use their understanding of the product’s capabilities to ensure the strategic end state can be expressed as a defined, decisive, and attainable objective.

The other missing aspect is the sequencing between goals to tie them together. A common business practice is to create a list of goals with little prioritization or rationalization behind them. Usually there is no concept that one goal supports another, much less how it supports the overall strategy. Even more rare is respect for the market and operating environment’s own time frame and schedule, and the fact that competitors and customers both influence how a business operates. Building flexibility into how goals are set and achieved in order to explicitly influence an objective enables the organization to be reactive to changes and to understand where to take the initiative when faced with an uncertain situation.

Another aspect is the concept of commander’s intent. This is considered a powerful aspect of the American essence, and originates from the 18th century German military concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission-type orders. There are plenty of delightful stories about how the Russians view the American military as well as the multiplicative effect from LGOPs (Lost groups of paratroopers) running around the battlefield. The intent of an operation remains a powerful, concise statement that can be easily shared and used, especially when all else remains chaotic. Ensuring that the business strategy can be presented in a small paragraph that is then solicited amongst all stakeholders and those executing the strategy is a key aspect of both creating the strategy as well as implementing it.

Throughout this post, I have described the design and planning of a military campaign and how it supports strategic goals. I then showed two areas where this military concept can support implementing a business strategy through the role of a product owner and by structuring business goals in a flexible and sequential manner. Having a shared and concise “commander’s intent” is one of the most powerful elements that a business can borrow from the military campaign design process.

A caution though is warranted for readers who have made it this far and are contemplating this analogy. Historically, a goal of the campaign is to force a decisive battle resulting in one army retiring from the field and the other marching toward victory. Although modern military thinking envisions systemic shocks that disrupt the enemy’s organization and force paralysis, there is still a desire to mass efforts against the Clausewitz era schwerpunkt in order to create and win the Battle of Annihilation (Vernichtungsschlacht).

Business campaigns, however, are designed to achieve strategic objectives and might not lend themselves to a singular point where victory is seized. Rather, moments that reveal a change in public opinion or purchasing trends might be more illuminating than historic market studies that point to changes in market share. Indeed, the time between launching a new product or entering a market and becoming the clear leader can have significant lag. Potential business campaign planners should maintain healthy skepticism before moving towards a decisive battle.