As I wrote last month, I didn't learn much in the Army.
Well, let me amend that statement: I got pretty good at taking apart an M-16, blindfolded, in 15 seconds flat. And if the flight attendants on the JAL 747 from Tokyo I'm on right now were to, in a remarkable lapse of Japanese standards of service, throw me off the plane with a parachute, I could do a pretty nice roll when I hit the ground. (Then I would be eaten by a polar bear. Israeli infantry aren't trained to survive in the tundra.)
But for all the veneration that the military model of management gets, you'd think I would have learned more from my army service about leadership or managing people. Nope. In my experience, military leadership is all about getting 18-year-olds to charge through a minefield when their natural inclination would be to hide behind a rock.
This kind of "management" is meant to induce instant, unquestioning obedience -- which would actually be counterproductive at my small software company, where the biggest problem is getting people to tell me when I'm wrong and to do things their way, because they're all smarter than I am.
The Army did teach me one important lesson, though, about strategy. It's a simple concept that a general taught us in a five-minute impromptu speech in the middle of an exhausting training exercise. Since then, I've read Michael Porter and the Harvard Business Review and loads of books by management consultants, and I've never learned as much about business strategy as I did from the simple infantry concept called fire and motion (it's also sometimes referred to as fire and movement).
Here is how it works. You fire at the enemy. That's the fire part. And you move forward at the same time. That's the motion. Get it?
You're firing because then your enemy has to take cover. He can't fire back at you when he's cowering behind a wall. But firing is not enough. You also have to move forward, or you won't make any progress. Moving forward brings you closer to the enemy. And closer enemies are easier to hit. You need both -- fire and motion -- to accomplish anything. Almost every military tactic, whether it's employed on air, sea, or land, is a variation on this fundamental pattern. Successful business strategies are based on fire and motion, too.
If you look at a competitive market, the successful company is always the one setting the agenda and forcing competitors to match it. For example, JetBlue's version of fire and motion came in the form of a superior customer experience. The airline's fares weren't necessarily cheaper, and it didn't fly to every destination. But its planes were really nice. They had comfortable leather seats, and there was an individual TV set for every passenger.
In an effort to catch up, the legacy airlines devoted time, money, and effort to copying JetBlue. Delta wasted a small fortune on Song, a start-up that featured novelty cocktails and flight attendants wearing uniforms designed by Kate Spade. It died after only three years in business, during which time JetBlue continued to expand into new markets and steal customers.
Similarly, though Starbucks has struggled with growing pains recently, it's a good example of fire and motion. And it forces competitors to react. Look at how much work McDonald's has put into trying to make expensive coffee drinks. This year, McDonald's plans to roll out McCafé espresso machines to thousands more locations so it can sell more cappuccinos and lattes. Because everybody knows McDonald's equals fancy coffee.
You might think that McDonald's should spend its time coming up with better hamburgers. Instead, the fast food chain is busy responding to Starbucks' fire and motion, even as Howard Schultz is busy looking for ways to shore up Starbucks' core business.
In my industry, software, fire and motion takes the form of adding new features to an application or updating a program in some other way. Microsoft used to be the undisputed master at setting the agenda. In the years I've been using Microsoft's developer tools, the company's technological cover fire has included no fewer than eight different "official" ways to get data out of a database. (For those of you keeping score at home, they were DbLib, ODBC, RDO, DAO, ADO, OLEDB, ADO.NET, and LINQ -- and I'm sure I've missed some others.)
Microsoft eventually overplayed its hand when it brought together developers at a conference in Los Angeles in 2003 and suggested that they might consider rewriting their applications from scratch in order to take advantage of the excellent new capabilities soon to ship as a part of Windows Vista. Many developers were wary, which was good, because when Vista finally was released, it had far fewer features than were expected. In the meantime, innovative companies like Google and VMware began to dictate the technology world's agenda to a degree that Microsoft had never seen. And now, in a remarkable turning of the tables, we see Microsoft on the defensive, spending a lot of effort responding to its rivals' fire and motion.
What do you do if you find yourself reacting to a rival's agenda instead of setting your own? The answer is to break the cycle as fast as you can. If you're a small company, you can't afford to respond to somebody else's fire. The big guys have 10 times the ammunition. So instead, you have to lure them into a Thermopylae of your own creation, where size doesn't matter.
The good news is that this isn't terribly difficult: Instead of paying attention to what your competitors are doing, start reading your customer feedback e-mail personally. Get online and listen to what people are saying about your products. Keep a running tally of what customers ask for through your company's website. If you actually do this, you'll probably stand apart from the crowd in your industry. The flat-earther corporations pat themselves on the back for having read Thomas Friedman's book and consequently dispatching their customer feedback e-mail to a team of dirt-cheap service reps 10 time zones away from their headquarters. They never have to be troubled again with what their customers need, want, say, or care about.
And what if your competitors are listening to customers? Don't waste a minute of your time trying to figure out if that is the case. If your competitors are really solving a problem in a unique way, you won't miss out by focusing on your own customers. Rest assured that your customers are already trying to tell you that this opportunity exists, if you'll only listen. A minute spent understanding the competition is a minute not spent listening to customers, potential customers, and near-miss customers, who would be happy to tell you directly what it would take to sell to them. You might even come up with a solution on your own that's better than the one your competitor came up with. That's when you start creating your own fire and motion -- when you innovate. Try something new that forces the competition to catch up with you. If you run an airline, and your customers demand that you install seatback TVs, what they are really saying is that long flights are boring. Maybe you can do something about the underlying problem. Have the flight attendants hold a singing contest, and the loser gets thrown from the plane with a parachute. And then sit back and rake in the bucks while your competitors scramble to get their own parachutes lined up.
Joel Spolsky is the co-founder of Fog Creek Software in New York City and the host of the popular blog Joel on Software.
For an archive of Joel Spolsky's columns, go to www.inc.com/keyword/spolsky