Published by:

  • Leadership – Speeches – Workshops
  • Personal Training – Consulting
  • Leadership – Marketing – Strategy

Vol. 1, No. 5
(626) 791-8973

There are Common Strategy Principles*

William A. Cohen © 2002

*From a forthcoming book to be published by AMACOM

If common strategy principles existed and could be uncovered, they would certainly be worth much to business, because once revealed they could be used by others to repeat a success again and again. Others have tried to find such principles in the past, especially those with a military bent. This is because the study of strategy started with warfare and that there are military principles for success in strategy has been accepted for several thousand years. It is perhaps for this reason that the very word “strategy” comes from the Greek word “strategos” which means “the art of the general.”

Why Strategy Which “Apes” Warfare Usually Fails

However, attempts to copy warfare as a model for business strategy have generally failed. Except in the sense of commitment to win, there is no such thing as “marketing warfare,” for business is not war. This is not only because war necessitates the taking of human life while the practice of business does not, but for other reasons.

First, war is not a continuous activity. A war is fought, and then it is over. It may start up again later, but for the time, it is done. Successful and unsuccessful forces are disbanded, nations disarm and citizens look for a “peace dividend.” A successful business goes on and on nonstop. In the U.S., there are businesses that are more than a hundred years old. In Europe and Asia, there are businesses that are several centuries old. Unlike a war, these businesses haven’t missed a day.

Moreover, speed is crucial to war strategy. Colonel John Boyt, a brilliant Air Force strategist developed what he called the OODA loop. “OODA” stands for observation, orientation, decision, and action. From personal observations as a fighter pilot, he theorized that anyone that could “get inside” a competitor’s OODA loop would invariably emerge victorious. His theories provided considerable insight into modern land combat to the extent that it is said that the U.S. Marine Corps completely altered its concept of land battle based on his theories. After his death some business strategists adopted his concepts of the OODA loop and ancillary theories. Even the editors of Harvard Business Review were impressed, and they published an article about them some years ago. But alas, while the OODA concept has almost universal concept in warfare, it has much less application to business. As Peter Drucker noted, astute business competitors can succeed by electing not to be first in the market, but in allowing someone else to do the groundwork and make their mistakes first. Despite the success of the Apple Computer in creating the computer market, which in itself was masterful application of basic strategic principles, it was IBM, IBM Clones and Microsoft that currently are the market leaders in this field.

Still does not mean that theories such as Boyt’s have no application to business. What it does mean however is that it is not a universal principle with general applicability to every business. This also helps to confirm that attempts to model business strategy based solely on military strategy principles or military maneuvers (the latter seems to me to be particularly absurd, but nevertheless some very prominent business researchers have attempted to do precisely that), is no more likely to succeed than strategy based say on legal or medical strategy. What this essentially amounts to is simply tacking on military terminology “flank attack” or “guerilla warfare,” etc. to business actions or concepts.

So while a study intended to unearth the essence of strategy for business should of necessity include an analysis of military strategy, it must be far broader and include a through examination of strategy in many different disciplines, including business itself. But first let’s see just how important the proper application of strategy can be, and we’ll start with a military battle.

This Strategist Overcame Odds of 3.6 : 1 in a Fight to the Death

In 216 B.C., the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, encountered 72,000 Romans at a place called Cannae in Southern Italy. His own army numbered only 20,000 and his army was hundreds of miles and across the sea from its base of operations. Both armies were equally well armed and trained. Also, each had a similar cavalry force of about 2000 horsemen. However, the Romans had one other important edge. They were fighting on their own turf while Carthage lay across the Mediterranean Sea.

If you look at the numbers alone, Hannibal should have surrendered or retreated. The Romans expected him to do so. He didn’t. He did the unexpected and surprised his opponent. He decided that the only way he could succeed was if he destroyed, not just defeated, the superior Roman army opposing him. He therefore defined this as his clear objective. Moreover he was fully committed to accomplishing this objective despite the odds against him.

Hannibal Didn’t Wait for Competitor to Act

Hannibal didn’t wait for the Romans to attack and then to react. Instead, Hannibal took the initiative and acted first. His plan was not complicated; it was very simple. No one needed to be a military genius to understand it. He divided his army into three main parts. He concentrated the bulk on his left and right flanks. On these two flanks, he was stronger than the Romans opposing him at these points. To concentrate, he economized and stripped his center. He arranged this much weaker force at his center in advance of his flanks, so that his army formed an inverted “V” with the weak point aimed directly at the Romans. As we will see, even the fact that the point was weak was designed to work to his advantage. Of course, the Romans could not see Hannibal’s disposition of forces. The apex in the advance of his strong flanks guarded his intentions. All the Romans saw was a solid mass of their enemy. This guarded his intentions.

Hannibal posted his cavalry on the left and right flanks of this inverted “V”, opposite the Roman cavalry. But, there was a difference in how Hannibal placed his cavalry as compared to the Romans. The Romans simply split their cavalry, 1000 on each side of their main force. Hannibal concentrated the bulk of his cavalry on the left. The small cavalry detachment he put on the right was told merely to shout and make a lot of noise. The technical military strategy term for this action is “a demonstration.” They were there to keep the 1000 Roman cavalrymen opposite them occupied with a demonstration. That way the Roman cavalry was unable to reflect on that fact that it was opposed and held in place by only a small force of horsemen. He economized the cavalry on his right flank and then concentrated on them on his left flank to attain superior numbers there. By the small force of cavalry of the right keeping the larger opposing Roman cavalry occupied, he further maintained security.

The Battle Opens and Hannibal’s Strategy Unfolds

As the battle opened, Hannibal’s larger cavalry force on his left, with almost a two to one advantage, easily defeated the smaller Roman cavalry detachment. Then, it swept around unopposed, taking the indirect approach, behind the 70,000 Roman foot soldiers. The 1000 Roman cavalry on the right were now heavily outnumbered and trapped between the two Carthaginian cavalry forces. They were easily overwhelmed and destroyed. The Romans had lost their entire cavalry force in the first few minutes of battle, and didn’t even know it. You can see this positioning and the action of Hannibal’s cavalry in Phase I in the figure.

Vol. 11

This was because there was a lot of action going on in the Roman center where most of their forces were engaged. 70,000 Roman foot soldiers were marching forward and came up against the weak Carthaginian center. They appeared to be unstoppable. As this massive Roman force advanced, pushing against the much weaker Carthaginian center, the center retreated and passed between the strong Carthaginian forces on the two flanks. The “V” no longer pointed at the Romans, but slowly inverted as the apex retreated while the flanks held fast. Soon, the apex of the “V” pointed away from the Romans. Hannibal had once again taken the indirect approach to trap his enemy, but they did not yet realize this.

The Superior Competitor More Rapidly to his Own Defeat

The Roman General, Varro, thought the Carthaginians were crumbling as Hannibal’s apex retreated. So he gave the order to increase the speed of advance. The Carthaginians apex retreated further and drew the Romans into their giant trap at an even faster pace. As the Romans advanced into the funnel formed by the now inverted Carthaginian “V,” they were forced closer and closer together by the heavy numbers of Carthaginians on either side. As the density of Roman soldiers between the two strong Carthaginian flanks increased, movement became difficult and the Romans could scarcely wield their famous short swords.

It was at this point that Hannibal, again maintaining the initiative, gave the order to go from a defensive posture over to the attack. Like two great doors the two wings of the “V” swung in on the closely packed Romans. The Carthaginian cavalry joined in from the rear. Pressed from all sides and unable to defend themselves, the well-trained Roman infantry faltered and broke. As they attempted to get away, it was every man for himself. Hannibal exploited his success until he completely destroyed the opposing force, as he had intended. Of the original Roman army of 72,000 with which Varro began the fight, only 12,000 survived. You can see what happened in Phase II in the figure.

Vol. 12

 Remember that this wasn’t a question of training or fighting harder. The Romans had the best-trained armies in the world . . . and both sides were fighting to the death.

What if Varro and taken a different course in this battle? Let us say that instead of attacking right up the middle, he had attacked against either the left or right flank of Hannibal’s army. Hannibal was positioned to use multiple alternatives. Had Varro attacked either flank, Hannibal would have enveloped the attacking force with the strong forces he had placed at the opposing flank. Varro didn’t know it, but due to Hannibal’s positioning for multiple alternatives, he would probably have been defeated no matter what he did despite almost a four to one advantage. That is the power of properly employing the principles of strategy.

Developing Ten Essential Principles of Strategy

As I noted earlier, strategy analysts have sought the essential secrets to winning any battle. Even in war, different strategists have developed many different principles. The table below compares various principles developed from different sources. However, to unearth the crucial strategy principles, I researched the greatest strategists and strategic thinkers of the millennia from both east and west in a search spanning over 7000 years of recorded history, in almost every country on earth in many fields. I studied the writings of ancient Chinese strategists like Sun Tzu, T’ai Kung Chiang Shang, and Sun Pin. But also, Epaminondas of Thebes who at Leuctra in 371 B.C. defeated the “unbeatable” Spartans although they outnumbered his forces, two to one. My studies included the German Karl von Clausewitz, but also his contemporary, and some say the superior strategist, the Swiss Antoine-Henri Jomini. Then there were more modern strategists such as the Englishman Liddell-Hart and the Italian economist-strategist Vilfredo Paredo. In 1897, Paredo found he could prove the value of economizing to concentrate statistically. He developed the 80/20 principle: 80 percent of results are derived from only 20 percent of the effort – a crucial comment on the proper allocation of always-limited resources.

The Principles of Strategy Refined Through Research

From these and other writings, I developed several hundred principles of strategy recommended by hundreds of successful strategists. Fourteen principles were selected as being non-repetitive and of potential universal application. After developing this list, I constructed a research tool based on these fourteen principles. Two hundred and ninety-three participants, including a wide variety of professionals of both sexes, ranging in age from 20 through 55 and at all levels of income and professional achievement, were asked to pick a competitive situation in which they were personally involved. They were permitted to choose any competitive situation that they wished, and included the categories of business, office politics, sports, romance, games, and job finding . . . just about anything but warfare. Using a semantic differential survey form, with descriptions ranging from “not very important” to “very important,” respondents noted the extent to which each of these strategy principles was important to the outcome of the situation. Afterwards, they designated the outcome as either “favorable” or “unfavorable.”

Samples of Principles of Strategy from Various Sources

Principles and Alternate Titles


U.S.A ir Force

U.K. USSR Sun Tzu Mao Clausewitz Fuller



X X X   X X X X
InitiativeOffensive X X X   X X X X
ConcentrationMass X X X   X X X X
Economy of Force X X X       X  




X X     X X X X
Unityof Command X X       X    



X       X      
Security X X X         X
Surprise X X X   X X X X
Simplicity X X            
FlexibilityFreedom of Action


    X     X    
Administration     X          
MoraleSpirit     X X   X X  



Quantity/Qualityof Divisions

Armament       X        
Ability ofCommanders       X        
Stability of the Rear       X        
Timing/Tempo   X            
Logistics   X            
Cohesion   X            
Continuous Action           X     


Subjected to a chi-squared statistical analysis, this research proved that the principles of strategy I had refined led to success in all competitive life situations, and most importantly for our purposes, business.

The Final Cut and the Ten Essential Principles of Strategy

However, additional analysis showed that my initial 14 principles needed some additional refinement. Some had to be employed together to be effective. Others needed to be separated out of an original principle for clarity and emphasis. After considerable experimentation and trial and error, I refined my original list to ten essential principles or lessons of strategy. I felt confident that my new list encompassed the essential lessons of strategy for all human endeavors. They are distilled from the thinking of the greatest strategists who have ever lived in many areas of human activity. These ten essential lessons or principles of strategy are:

  1. Commitment to an Objective
  2. Seizing and Maintaining the Initiative
  3. Economization and Mass
  4. Surprise
  5. The Indirect Approach
  6. Simplicity
  7. Multiple Alternatives
  8. Security
  9. Exploitation of Success
  10. Timing

In future newsletters I’ll discuss the meaning and application of each principle.

THE LESSON: Apply these principles as you formulate strategy in business. You’ll find that they work for you as they worked for Hannibal, Clinton, Bush, or Bill Gates.