Friday, June 12, 2009

12: David vs Hannibal

Recently encountering the Japanese concept of "The tall Poppy" (something or someone that needs to be cut down to size for no other reason than it stands out) it reminded me of my own early years. Growing up to be 6'1" in a nation of vertically challenged Celts, I was introduced to the children's game they called "The bigger they are; the harder they fall". On the whole I did not find it as amusing as they seemed to. Strange how in this world of equality it is still ok to bring down the big guy; positively applauded if it is a little guy that does it.

So in a pique of ire I searched for few counter examples that I could quote, where a tall or large something had vented its spleen on something smaller, and received global acclaim for doing so ... It wasn't easy!

Undoubtedly the most famous victory of small over large was David and Goliath; but I'm not sure that things were quite that simple. It is true that David had a secret weapon, a sling; which he used to kill one giant ... but that cannot have been the end of story! His success was the use of a one-time secret weapon; the sling. But unless giants had a pretty novel approach to procreation, it is unlikely there were not at least two. So the full match report of the day would probably have read more like this: "The 1:0 lead taken in the opening minutes was soon reversed as the giants, copying David's sling in much larger proportions, used it to great effect inflicting a crushing defeat on the cheeky upstart and his mortal followers!". A crushing victory of Large over Small, that history prefers to remember otherwise.

But there is a lesson: If you have to reveal your secret weapon, make sure your enemy can't copy it easily.

So the rout of Hannibal was a much more impressive [1]. He had a secret weapon, which he did not hide, and he still beat the whole Roman army ... well nearly! For those that don't know the story: There was this guy who with a few hundred soldiers and a couple of elephants, walked from Spain to Italy over the Pyrenees and the Alps, with the declared intent to beat the whole Roman army and conquer Rome ... And technically he did it! Emerging victorious from several major battles with the Romans in Northern Italy, increasingly outnumbered at each, he duly lay siege to Rome itself, whilst waiting approval from his managers (safely at home in Carthage (N Africa)) to deliver the coupe-de-grace. Alas, they declared his methods were 'unprofessional' and refused to let him. As they argued, the Roman Emperor mounted his own 'unprofessional move' directly on Carthage, and Hannibal was recalled to try and sort it out. De-motivated and exhausted, they started to walk back. Of course he died on the journey and his little army was duly dispatched. Demonstrating without question the importance of obtaining management buy-in! But another crushing victory of Large over Small which is remembered otherwise.

But Hannibal's strategy was much more interesting ... Meet under your terms; do the unexpected; repeat.

Surely everyone knows that all is fair in love and war, so how can this have been a strategy? Surely in war you expect the unexpected?

Well back in 200BC battles were much more formal processes ... Communication was limited, so battles had to be fought by arrangement, without it armies would never have even found each other to fight. "We'll meet at dawn on Jacobs field, a week after the full moon". Similarly, because battlefield communications were essentially nonexistent, you trained and formed your armies in conventional ways forcing tactics to be more or less 'text book'. As a result the largest army almost always won, unless you had a very incompetent general. Hannibal with his tiny, relatively immobile, but very noticeable army couldn't keep his advance or mission secret ... But he could and did dictate the places they would meet. On one occasion, he arranged to meet a Professional Roman Legion 10x his size on the other side of an Alpine river. After a brief formal skirmish, Hannibal's army retreated across the river. The armoured Romans sensing a rout, pursued them ... but emerging from the river frozen and half drowned, they were easily dispatched by Hannibal's men.

So today we know that war doesn't follow set rules! Yet our politicians are routinely surprised that smaller 'enemies' no longer present themselves to be pummelled, in accordance with military convention ... Not surprisingly they prefer to fight with T&C more favourable to them, and where high-tec armaments have become so much junk.

But even business conflicts are not just fought on agreed grounds and by approved rules, despite the preferences of the larger incumbents ... life's just not like that, is it. Disruptive Technology[2], is after all the result of a smaller operation displacing a larger incumbent, by the innovative application of available knowledge/technique. They chose the battle field and the terms of the engagement. It's not that the incumbent is incapable of doing whatever it is they do, just that their entire-business operation operates to prevent them actually doing it.

Looking more broadly of course you see Businesses, Countries, Institutions and Administrations all exhibiting the same behaviour. Rising to a position of dominance, they soon become convinced of their supremacy and cannot perceive any another way ... Yet time and again they are displaced by those who do! So maybe this behaviour is part of what has made mankind so successful, and why it is so much a part of our psyche.

So as a Tall Poppy I'm just going to have to stay street-wise ... Starting now; there are some Welshmen approaching.


PS: Sorry about the 'gap'. A Sabbatical, followed by writers block.

2: The Innovator's Dilemma: Christensen.
3: Blog: