Napoleon is still teaching strategy

Napoleon Bonaparte lived two centuries ago, but he is still teaching lessons about turning success into failure.

His attempt to defeat Russia was one of the most extreme displays of hubris in history. It was also a fantastic example of the types of “mental models” that continue to impact the way we think—and act—today.

This map below shows Napoleon’s progression from France to Moscow. He began with 422,000 troops, fully confident in his invincibility and certain that he would defeat the Russians. In fact, he was so sure of an early victory that his soldiers wore only summer clothes.

He anticipated a Russian surrender well before his troops arrived in Moscow.

Napoleon based his belief that he was invincible on his proven success in Europe – he based it on evidence of past victories. Then, the Russians changed the game. As Napoleon marched, the Russians retreated, burning their own villages to destroy the provisions that Napoleon had planned to pillage. This left the French army weak and poorly supplied.

The Russians broke all of the “rules” of warfare on which Napoleon was relying for his success. As a result, his army failed to defeat the Russians and returned to Paris with only 10,000 troops.

The challenge that Napoleon faced – one that, 200 years later, businesses continue to face – was one of mental models and the intensifying effect that success has on them. We build mental models to explain the world around us (“I am an emperor with divine powers”) and our success (conquering Europe) confirms the mental model. This makes us less prepared to adapt to change.

But, as Napoleon learned, the world does change.

It’s the same in business. Take RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, as an example. The company was stuck in its own mental model of success; they had the dominant smartphone, the essential business tool that couldn’t be replaced – until it was.

According to IDC, who tracks such things, BlackBerry’s smartphone market share could dip to less than 1% by 2018. Their mental model – in this case, being irreplaceable – was far from correct.

Breaking out of our mental models requires three things:

  1. The courage to question the sacred cows that form the basis of our business. Is what we know to be true really true? Often these sacred cows are so deeply ingrained that even identifying them from within can be a challenge.

  2. An outside perspective untainted by past successes. An outside perspective can provide an unbiased view of the situation, identify sacred cows and provide contrarian points of view.

  3. A process to examine your business and your market through different perspectives to identify both weaknesses and opportunities.

All companies, especially strong, successful companies, should make the effort to challenge the mental models underlying their businesses. Doing so will help avoid following Napoleon’s ultimate path to defeat and create opportunities to change the game and continue to grow.

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