1. How to Stop a War Elephant - for when you have an unusual solution to a particular problem
War Elephants were the tanks of the ancient world. Their size and strength made their very presence on the battlefield enough to drive even experienced soldiers insane with fear. Alexander the Great discovered one solution was to open up lanes between his troops, down which the elephants would charge rather than crash into heavily armored soldiers armed with long spears, after which specially trained soldiers would dart in and hamstring them.
But this was very risky. The real problem was a way to stop them before they reached your lines. And surprisingly enough, the solution turned out to be another animal; the humble pig. For the one thing that terrified elephants was a loudly squealing pig. All defenders had to do when faced with a rampaging elephant was thrust a squealing pig in its face and it would turn tail and run.
However, for obvious reasons nobody wanted to actually stand right in front of a rampaging elephant and do that. They preferred to send the pigs off towards the elephants from a distance. The problem lay in making them squeal with appropriate noise and vigor when they were some way away. Until a solution was discovered by the Greeks of the city of Megara. They covered the pigs in tar and olive oil and set fire to them before sending them towards the enemy. This ensured plenty of squealing, both in quantity and quality, and had the side benefit of also ensuring a ready supply of crispy bacon after the battle had been won.
Which just goes to prove that sometimes you really need to be creative and think outside the box when your opponents present you with a seemingly insurmountable problem. In the last 12 months the war elephant facing us was competitor X's new product, the ABC ......
2. Gaining Your Life But Losing Your Wife - for when you want one last push for a seemingly unachievable target
The lot of prisoners taken during civil wars is often a tricky one, as being of the same nation but on a different side, they can easily be accused of treason and executed. During the English Civil War in the seventeenth century, a corporal was writing a farewell letter to his wife on the eve of his execution.
His conundrum was whether to write in the present tense, because he was, at that moment, alive .... or in the past, as he would be dead by the time she read the letter? Unable to decide, he chose a middle course and wrote, 'This is to let you know that yesterday I was hanged, drawn and quartered and died very penitently. Remember me kindly to my poor fatherless children.'
But once he'd posted the letter he was rescued by his own men and the execution never took place. Instead he had the fortune to watch his captors meet their deaths the following morning. But the letter couldn't be intercepted and after he returned home from the war he found his wife had remarried, having received written proof of his death in his own hand.
The moral of the story is that - to change metaphors from the military to sports - you should never throw in the towel too early. The show ain't over 'til the fat lady sings. It's easy to say the sales figures we need in the last month of the year in order to reach our annual target can't be hit. That it's too late. But they can be achieved ......
3. A 'Blindingly Obvious' Problem - for when you want people to look at something from another perspective ..........
During World War One, Major General Aleksei Kuropatkin of the Imperial Russian army had a brainwave. A new piece of technology - the searchlight - had enabled the Russians to light the areas around their defensive positions at night, preventing them from being attacked under cover of darkness. But it was his genius to come up with a way to use it offensively. His brilliantly simple idea was to shine them directly at the enemy during a night attack, illuminating their positions.
Now it doesn't take the brains of Einstein to see the flaw in this plan, but neither Kuropatkin nor his staff did so. In early 1916 his grenadier corps advanced on the German lines with huge, dazzling searchlights behind them. The only problem was, every single Russian soldier was perfectly outlined by the lights and over 8,000 of them were shot dead in the initial advance.
Sometimes things look like a great idea when viewed from one perspective, but are completely the opposite when looked at from another. Our XYZ process seemed a great idea when looked at from the perspective of cutting costs. But from a customer service perspective it has been a disaster .........
...... Our XYZ process seems perfect when looked at from an internal perspective. After all, it makes our lives much easier. But from the customers' perspective it makes us look inflexible, uninterested and intransigent .....
4. The Danger Of Wearing Red Trousers - for when you want people to abandon previously-held 'sacred cows'
During the 17th and 18th centuries, when huge battles were fought on open fields with tens of thousands of men in a relatively small area, brightly colored uniforms helped commanders identify their troops and dispositions. But by the early 20th century, open set-piece battles were a thing of the past, and the increased deadliness of rifles and machine guns meant it was better to remain as inconspicuous as possible.
The British army changed it's uniforms from red to khaki and the Germans from Prussian blue to field gray. Everyone realized this was necessary. Except the French.
They insisted on keeping their blue jackets and bright red trousers. The press said that "To banish all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his gay and spirited appearance .... is to go against French tastes and military need," and one politician declared, "Le Pantalon Rouge, c'est la France!"
Then during the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, the French marched through bright yellow cornfields in their bright red trousers, making as beautiful a target as could possibly be imagined. They were massacred, with almost none of them surviving. The following year the uniforms were changed.
Sometimes, because something has worked in the past, we develop an emotional attachment to it. It becomes a 'sacred cow', which can't even be discussed, even though the circumstances which led to its creation have long changed. And that's what's happened in this company with XYZ ......
5. The Danger Of Getting Caught Sleeping - for when you've underestimated the competition or the competition is complacent and you're abou to attack them
On 21 April 1836, the Mexican army under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was encamped on the banks of the San Jacinto river in Texas, at that time still part of Mexico. Not long before the Mexicans had massacred the garrison of the Alamo to a man and now all that remained to quell the Texan rebellion was to defeat Sam Houston's army in front of him.
Victory was a foregone conclusion. Houston had retreated before him and refused to fight when given the opportunity before. Santa Anna had an army of 1,400 battle-seasoned, well trained men drilled in volley firing, and the Texans had 800 untrained volunteers who would have to cross open prairie under the sights of their guns. He was confident. Too confident. Convinced that Houston would never attack, he took his normal afternoon siesta and insisted that the entire army had one too. He didn't even bother to post sentries.
But at 3.30 pm he had a rude awakening. Houston's army simply walked unhindered across the plain and were only a few yards from the Mexican lines when a great cry of 'Remember the Alamo' rent the air and the Texans charged, stopping only to pour fire into the sleepy enemy, many of whom were curled up with their wives and girlfriends.
Unused to close-quarter fighting the Mexicans fled, and within a period of 20 minutes, 630 were killed and 730 taken prisoner, with the loss of only 9 Texans. Santa Anna also fled but was captured the following day, and in order to save himself from a hangman's noose as a war criminal because of the utchery at the Alamo, agreed to lobby forTexan independence.
Everything was on Santa Anna's side. Numbers, training, experience, the terrain. He made one mistake - over confidence. And that was enough. Corporate graveyards are littered with the bones of companies who were complacent and thought they couldn't be beaten. Until someone came along who thought otherwise. Competitor X has been complacent about its market leadership for years. And we are about to teach them the error of their ways ........
If you've njoyed this article, you'll also like Military anecdotes (II) and Military anecdotes (III)
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