SALES

Corporate Culture: Business Is NOT a Battlefield

Companies and individuals who see business as a form of warfare tend to pursue dead-end strategies.

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A couple of weeks ago, one of my posts ("The 8 Core Beliefs of Extraordinary Bosses") went viral, generating a million page views in a few days. Apparently readers still believe that beliefs matter.

In my experience, the first belief ("Business is an ecosystem, not a battlefield") is probably the most crucial, since it underpins all the others.  As I pointed out in the original post, bosses who truly believe business to be a battlefield tend to be average at best, while bosses who think of business as an ecosystem tend to be more flexible and effective.

Beliefs Matter

Just as personal beliefs predetermine personal behavior, organizational beliefs predetermine corporate behavior.  And companies where the dominant belief is that "business is a battlefield" tend to be brittle and increasingly out-of-touch with a rapidly changing business world.

Core beliefs, at the organizational level, operate as a "guidance system" for employees and executives alike.  As Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy point out in the groundbreaking book Corporate Cultures, these core beliefs create a "strong system of informal rules that spells out how people are to behave most of the time."

Organizational beliefs are felt "in the gut." While they can be expressed with words, those words usually evoke images and analogies that encapsulate and reinforce strong emotions. Much of time, the believer is only vaguely aware of this effect and may have such an attachment to the emotions that the beliefs are held to be self-evident.

To explain how this works, let me draw from an example outside of the business world.

For decades, the U.S. government has been conducting a "war on drugs."  Because the drug problem has been cast in a "battlefield" context, the government has pursued warlike strategies–bombing foreign countries with defoliant, setting up quasi-military organizations to suppress the drug trade, and the mass internment of the "enemy" (i.e., drug dealers and users).

At the same time, the "battlefield" analogy makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to even consider alternative strategies like legalization.  As one anti-legalization pundit once characterized the situation, "our marching orders were to figure out how to win the war on heroin, not to run up the white flag of surrender."

Battlefield Beliefs Limit Strategies

In exactly the same way, the "business is a battlefield" core belief limits the strategies that an organization is willing to seriously consider, let alone implement.

For example, I once belonged to a group responsible for marketing electronic publishing software for DEC.  DEC's software developers spent around a million dollars to port a desktop publishing product to OS/2, an IBM operating system then being promoted as a Windows alternative.

For all intents and purposes, the only sales channel for the publishing product was IBM, which meant that DEC marketing needed to cut a deal with IBM (normally a DEC competitor) in order to recoup its investment and make a profit. Unfortunately, the marketing executive mandated to cut the deal with IBM was a guy who had recently told his staff–during a "motivational talk"–to "think of IBM as Hitler."

Needless to say, he failed to cut the distribution deal. DEC ended up selling about four copies of the software–generating about $1,000 in revenue on a $1 million investment.

This is not to say that militaristic organizations always fail. However, over time they tend to pursue rigid strategies that work in the short term but become increasingly dysfunctional when the market inevitably changes. 

Example: Apple vs. Microsoft

Since the mid-1990s, it's been clear that some type of handheld device would either replace or augment the desktop/laptop computing model.  Despite the advantages of having an enormous presence in both PCs and in the data center, Microsoft has experienced a string of failures, ranging from the ill-fated Windows CE to the wildly unsuccessful Kin phone.

By contrast, Apple Computer has established the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, leading their three respective product categories.  Most business pundits attribute this success not just to superior product design but to especially to Apple's creation of what the New York Times calls the "ecosystem" of accessories, partners, and the iTunes online store.

An interesting question is: How could Microsoft have created a similar ecosystem?

One way to bootstrap an ecosystem (and leapfrog over Apple) would have been for Microsoft to partner with Google, which (especially after its 2006 acquisition of YouTube) had a direct connection with billions of media consumers. However, such a partnership was impossible because Microsoft, as a culture, tends to demonize any company that captures an important software market as an implacable enemy.

Here's what Steve Ballmer allegedly said about then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, back when a partnership would have made sense: "I'm going to f—ing bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again ... I'm going to f—ing kill Google."

Clearly, a partnership to create a ecosystem of support for Microsoft's handhelds or tablets simply wasn't going to happen.

Think Different(ly)

Now, this is not say that Apple execs never made militaristic remarks.  Steve Jobs, for example, famously said about Google's Android product that "I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."  Regardless of Jobs' occasional foray into militaristic imagery, the Apple culture tends to think of business as an ecosystem.  CNNMoney even credits Jobs with creating the very concept of a market ecosystem.

Microsoft, as a culture, has tended to view the marketplace in terms of destroying competitors and capturing markets.  While it's possible to find the occasional "ecosystem" quote from Microsoft execs, Steve Ballmer didn't really start talking about a "Windows Ecosystem" until 2010.  And the concept (obviously an imitation of Apple) is foreign to Microsoft, so it's unlikely to catch hold.

Taken over the broad histories of both companies, Microsoft may have "won the battle" for the PC back in the day–but it's been Apple, with its emphasis on ecosystem, that's been more successful in the past decade at "growing new businesses."

Belief for Success

I've seen this same dynamic play itself out dozens of times.  The companies where the dominant way of thinking is all about destroying and conquering tend to pursue strategies that fall flat.  They may talk about "coopetition," but at a gut level, the entire idea of "working with the enemy" seems insane to them.

What's more, during the hundreds of interviews I've conducted, I've notice that execs who use warlike imagery tend to be–not to put too fine a point on it–jerks.  They tend to be puffed up with their own self-importance.

And to bring this back to my usual subject, sales: I might add that I have never spoken with a top sales performer who thought of selling in terms of warfare.  They're competitive, yes–incredibly so–but they almost always use other kinds of competitive imagery, such as sports.

I should also mention that warlike thinking is a great way to alienate female employees.  I've talked about my mother–a top salesperson for Bristol Myers–several times in this column.  She once had a sales manager tell her that, when it came to working with retail stores, she should "rape and pillage and leave no wounded."

She was not impressed.

If you want the long-term success that comes from being flexible and adaptable, I highly recommend mothballing any tendency you have to think of business as a battlefield.  Stop using that imagery in your vocabulary and by all means stop foisting it on your employees.

When you think of business in general, and competition in particular, try to think in terms of an ecosystem, with strategic evolution, profitable market niches, and other concepts borrowed from the world of biology.  Ultimately, this way of thinking will make you, and your firm, more successful.

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Last updated: May 21, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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