Friday, September 12, 2014

Themistocles' SWOT

The battle of Thermopylae (the tale of the three hundred) and the clash between the Greeks and the mighty army of Xerxes has echoed throughout history as a lesson in the force multiplier effect of landscape. Themistocles devised a strategy where the narrow pass of Thermopylae would be used to hold back the Persians whilst the Athenian navy would block the straits of Artemisium.

The tale is a lesson on why understanding the environment (situational awareness) and exploiting it is critical in combat and why maps of the environment are powerful military tools.

Alas, it turns out that this tale is wrong. Recently discovered archaeological evidence has shown that rather than using awareness of the environment, Themistocles had no situational awareness at all. Instead, the troops were roused not through cunning strategy but the use of a SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunity and threat) diagram which was presented to the troops in 28 pt Arial on parchment. The original Greek document has now been translated and is provided below.

Themistocles' SWOT

Please note, the next time someone turns up with a strategy document which has no map of the landscape but instead either a business model canvas or SWOT diagram masquerading as strategy - I will laugh mercilessly at you until you go away.

Both Business Model Canvas and SWOT diagrams are perfectly useful communication artefacts of the process of scenario planning but they are post event. Without a map, even an imperfect map then you have no strategy. Well, certainly not anything I'm going to take seriously.

Oh, and btw ... I ran strategy for Canonical in cloud between 2008 and 2010. I mapped the environment and with others we learned where to attack, knew where to not get in the way of others, used what was there to our advantage and exploited the inertia of competitors. With a small team and paltry resources (tiny fractions of our competitors) then in two years we took Ubuntu from a bit part of the operating system market to around 70% of all public cloud. Mapping helped me enormously to explain to others and to determine where to attack. Fighting Red Hat was like stealing candy from a child ... I felt guilty over how ridiculously easy it was to walk in and help myself.

Now, maps are imperfect and I'm no Thermistocles or miracle worker but if someone like me can waltz into a market and take it over through the use of a map then I have to say the strategic play in the world of business is pretty poor. In fact, I already know it is.