Sense, audacity and opportunity

B.H. Liddell Hart unearthed the key to effective and decisive strategy. 

“… for success, two major problems must be solved–dislocation and exploitation. One precedes and one follows the actual blow—which in comparison is a simple act. You cannot hit the enemy with effect unless you have first created the opportunity; you cannot make that effect decisive unless you exploit the second opportunity that comes before he can recover.”

The sequence Hart observed through his study of military history can be laid out more simply:

  1. Unsettle your opponent. Put them in a position that forces them off-balance. Induce disorder and uncertainty into their minds.
  2. Once they are unsettled and off-balance, strike where they least expect you to, and where the resistance is minimal.
  3. Capitalise on the demoralising effects your unexpected strike has created.

​As Hart observes in Strategy, “luck can never be divorced from war, since war is a part of life. Hence the unexpected cannot guarantee success. But it guarantees the best chance of success.”

I’m deep into The Last Lion trilogy. It’s a biography of Winston Churchill. After World War I, he was held responsible for the disaster that was the Brit’s attempted invasion of Turkey. But, really, it was slow decision making and the unwillingness to capitalise on opportunity that was the campaign’s downfall.

The British Navy’s fleet made it’s way to the Dardanelles. They bombarded the outdated Turkish batteries and shattered their defenses. The Turks, and the Germans who were backing them, were on the backfoot. They had no resources, few options, and most importantly, no spirit. The overwhelming power of the British naval bombardment has caused them to flee. The route to Constantinople lay open before the British forces.

But they did not capitalise.

They delayed. They paused their attack. Weeks of waiting became months. The War Committee wanted backup from land forces. They wanted to be sure that all the mines placed in the narrow strait of the Dardanelles were removed. And that reprieve gave the Turks and the Germans a chance to re-supply, to re-orientate and to regenerate the will to fight.

The British high command didn’t want to risk anything. And because of that aversion to risk, they missed the chance to end the war. Their meekness cost millions of lives which could of been saved had they pressed their advantage.

Churchill was, in many ways a great man. One of the ways in which his greatness is exhibited? He combined two abilities which are rarely found in one person. He could sense an opportunity. And when he did, he had the audacity to milk it to great effect. 

But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t influence the decision to stall and allow the Turks to regroup. Why? The manoeuvring of the British Navy was decided on by committee. There was no chief decision maker. No one person responsible for saying yes or no. Reading about this time in history, I can’t help thinking how different the world would be had Churchill been trusted with command. What if the British campaign wasn’t run by committee? What if one person made the final call on the actions to be taken? Would we be better off?

In our own organisations or projects, are we better served by having a head decision maker? Or by waiting for a consensus of opinion?

Which structure or method allows us to unearth opportunities and capitalise on them to maximum effect?