“Generals always fight the last war” is a common saying in military strategy. It reflects the fact that Generals use the tactics that worked out in the last war, recycling the past in stead of focusing on the future.
The most clear example of this concept in Military Strategy is the massive disaster that represented the Line Maginot for France. Facing the WW2, French Generals developed their defence strategy against Germany based on what they did in WW1.
Considering the lessons learned from the trench based war the french Generals fortified the borders with Germany expecting a direct heads on attack from their neighbours.
German Generals, on the other hand, developed a strategy with a set of brand new tactics known as Blitzkrieg that involved the use of planes, armour and specialised troops in order to move fast, like a lightning, avoid trenches over all costs and never face the French on the front where they were strongest (just as Sun Tzu explained centuries before).
German generals took what many observers would consider the “inconceivable” route to France: conquering Netherlands and Belgium. But using the tailored tactics, Germans reached France within days from the North, where there the Maginot Line was weak, or not existing at all.
That’s what strategy is all about, identify opportunities where others see difficulty and convert your enemy’s strengths in their biggest mistakes
Are we fighting last wars in Digital Marketing?
That’s what we do. We fight our last war (what worked in the past). If we developed a great strategy that payed off, replicating the same success in another case is highly unlikely. Let me put an example.
As Conversion Rate Optimizer I run A/B test to improve conversion rates for my clients. I analyse the data, research the users and come up with a testing plan. That testing plan is unique for that client in that industry, and it would be pointless to replicate the same tests in another client, no matter how well they performed.
The same goes for SEO, PPC, Email… that piece of email that worked so well, cant be replicated to another database. We need to understand what we did that worked so well and adapt the learning to a new project, not replicate the email.
Bad Generals fight other’s last wars
That’s and event worse way of fighting “new” wars, which is using strategies that worked for others.
“How Airbnb used craiglist to growth hack his user base”, “How Coca Cola used user generated content to grow it’s Facebook fan base”, “How this airline used twitter to reduce customer care costs” are the main sources of inspiration to come up with new strategies.
While sharing these business case studies is great for learning (we do so in the Business Case Studies section) we need to be wise to understand what is strategy and what is tactic. What can be copied and what not.
Tactics can be replicated. Strategies can’t.
A strategy is a plan to:
- Accomplish a specific strategic goal
- In a unique context
- Solving one specific problem
- Maximising some unique strength
- Minimising some unique weakness
Therefore it’s impossible that we can replicate the strategy that worked for another in our case. It won’t be a Good strategy, as it won’t be solving for us nor our problem.
It’s like a football game
Good Generals, like good coaches, learn from the past and come up with new strategies. Imagine a football coach that only played like the last game he won. That would work once, maybe twice, but the rival teams would learn quickly from his predictable strategy making.
The challenge that the strategist faces is that we have to come up with new strategies over and over, and while recycling them is an option, to keep achieving our goals, we need to find the right solutions to our unique problems.
As we’ve vastly discussed in Digital Generals, Strategy is about shaping the future, planing the ways and means to accomplish a vision.