A successful strategy must contain an element of surprise. This article discusses the elements of surprise and a number of different forms of surprise. With surprise built into your strategy, nobody can withstand you.
What Is Surprise?
Surprise is anything that the opponent cannot prepare for. It is surprisingly simple. However, the faces of surprise can be quite different. In all elements of a strategy surprise can be applied. So, if we consult Von Clausewitz we take the elements of strategy and then discuss some forms of surprise that can be applied in each element.
- Moral: Have stronger faith and resolve than your opponent expects.
- Physical: Leave the opponent guessing about the size of your force and show up with much more force than the opponent anticipated.
- Mathematical: Do not attack head on, but from a different angle. For example, attack at a different point than everybody expects.
- Geographical: Use obstacles in your benefit, for example to hide your preparations.
- Statistical: Stay in the struggle longer than your opponent expected, have more resources than your opponent.
Surprise may turn weaknesses into strength and may turn a long battle into a short one or a clear win into long battle. But, surprise requires secrecy and preparation.
During the Dutch struggle of independence, the Spanish army was about three times larger than the Dutch army. In those days (17th century) the number of troops eventually decided the battle. On the eve of one of the battles the Dutch commander decided to take a parade, to allow the troops show allegiance to the flag and their commander. The parade was done in such a way that the Spanish could see the parade, allowing them to count the troops. The parade took place in the dusk of the day. But, after the troops passed the commander they walked around in a big circle and passed the commander several times. This way a much bigger army was shown to the Spanish. The Spanish withdrew to wait for a better chance.
In 1940 the Italian army moved from Libya into Egypt which was defended by the British army. After some of-and-on fighting the Italians started loosing and had to retreat from Tobruk to Tripoli. The 7th Armoured Division moved through the desert and around the Italians. The British reached the sea coast south of Benghazi and cut the line of retreat of the Italians. The Italians, surprised by the British showing up on their path, surrendered 21,000 men. The force who accomplished that was only 3,000 men strong.
Surprise can be decisive. Although, in the case of the 7th Army it was not final. When the Italian army was almost completely defeated, the Germans sent general Rommel to the Italians aid. Rommel was able to elevate surprise to an even higher level than the British could and the second world war in North Africa took another two year to end.
Preparations for surprise must take place in secrecy. Secrecy avoids that the opponent can prepare. Secrecy is more important for military action than for business or personal action. In military action, there is one (or at least) well defined enemy, During a war it is clear what army is fighting what enemy and thus each side knows that action from the other side can be expected. This is not clear in a business environment or personal situation. For some actions there is no 'enemy', if your personal goal is to climb a mountain then the mountain cannot prepare. However, even climbing a mountain can be done with surprise: using a new technique; a slightly different route or starting the climb earlier at the day to avoid the heat.
It follows then that secrecy is needed when the opponent can prepare. However, if you start a business based on a new business model the existing companies will not be able to prepare their organization against that business model. As an example, as so often, look at Amazon.com. Amongst others due to the fact that bookstores are fragmented and often small, they were not prepared for an all-online bookstore like Amazon.com. Many bookstores had to close because buying books online was a hit. Only after years were the larger bookstores able to find a good mix of brick-and-mortar-and-online business. The smaller bookstores specialized or vanished. Amazon.com however did nothing in secret with its business strategy, the surprise was so big that the existing market could not prepare.
Creativity and Preparation
Creativity is needed for surprise. Surprise may consist of applying something that did not exist before or applying something that did exist before in a totally new way. Hence there is no end to the possibilities of surprise. The only limit is that it must have a good chance to succeed.
Preparation is needed to increase the chances of success. A great surprise can still fail with bad preparation. Ever seen a young magician who gave the trick away because he did not exercise his trick enough? Such a situation is funny, but the laughter means defeat for the magician who expect to harvest awe from its audience.
How much and what kind of creativity and preparation is needed to accomplish something cannot be taught in a book, let alone on an Internet page. As for preparation, the right time of action must be chosen and the right time may limit the time available for preparation. Creativity is limited by the resources available.
Books and study may help inspire creativity. For example, Sun Tzu's 'Art of War' is full of quotes from the Chinees general Sun Tzu. The quotes discuss ancient Chinese warfare. The quotes may inspire you to creativity in your situation. But then, so may the Tao Te Ching. Then there is TRIZ – the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving – from the Russian Genrich Altshuller who created after studying patent applications, created a system of 40 inventive principles for problem solving.
The element of surprise avoids the frontal attack. The frontal attack is anything expected, aimed at the strength of the opponent. Competition on price in retail, is the best known frontal attach in business. Although applied daily, most retail businesses confuse the customer by showing a price "after rebate" to make the difference with the competition slightly indirect. Providing additional services to the customer is already much more indirect than just price. Being the only shop to sell a much wanted product under exclusive contract with the manufacturer, of course is the much sought after surprise in retail.
So, to avoid a frontal attack you must aim your action around the strength of the opponent or opposing force. Knowing the strength requires knowledge of the industry or the field you are working in. This is not simple and cannot be generalized, study is required. But once the strength of the opponent is known, the action can be aimed at the back of the force, the supply lines or the base of the opponent. Which is enough for another article.