Claudio Matsuoka - CC BY 2.0 -

What is your decisive terrain?

“See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket…We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can [still] defy us from Vicksburg.” — Abraham Lincoln, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War

Nobody likes to lose, I’ve dealt with that emotion plenty of times, it’s humbling and sore. The ability to rapidly identify “the decisive terrain”, in challenging situations, helps us avoid mistakes and gives us a strong focal point to build our strategy around.

Vicksburg was “decisive ground” because it was essential to the Southern Confederate states, who would use it to bring in supplies from the Mississippi and transport them to other confederate states east and west of Vicksburg.

One of the toughest challenges in strategic thinking is figuring out what we don’t need to think about, at least not in the short term. But how can we do this quickly?

While I was researching this question I ended up reading about the US Civil War, during which The City of Vicksburg became a focal point. Vicksburg gave The South crucial access to the Mississippi River as well as rail lines needed to supply food and weapons to the rest of the Confederacy. In military terms such land is considered to be “Decisive Terrain”; ground that must be controlled in order to successfully meet strategic objectives.

Take a look at the map above. Now imagine:

  1. You’re a northern general and you need to take back the south
  2. You have a map of the south, with locations on it. But that’s about it. There there are no other markings on the map.
  3. Try to imagine what it looks like without the red circle and the red arrows.

Where do you start — It’s hard right?

Once Vicksburg is painted as a target and red arrows are inked in showing why it’s important. i.e. Vicksburg is where crucial East / West supplies originate in the south, that confusion quickly dissipates.

So how do we use this sort of thinking in practical situations?

Physical Location in business:
Physical land where businesses are located is a clear option, when I was a lot younger I had an experience where the location of a family business was decisive; My brother, cousins and I ran a small shop selling crisps (potato chips), canned drinks and water for 10 days during a festival, we worked for nine nights everyday till midnight, and counted the money when we got home. We were the only “store” allowed in the festival, so we had the decisive terrain.

Customer Value?
But for many businesses operating in a digital and borderless world, physical location doesn’t provide a good answer; how does the success of companies like Uber, AirBNB, Android or Apple relate to physical location of stores? Ultimately when you look at these businesses and you work backwards from why they succeed, you tend to arrive at the same answer, namely that today, Customer Value above all else is decisive.

Evidence of this can be seen beyond business strategy — many of the traditional processes geared towards product, service or software development are shifting quickly to a more human centred design approach aka “Design Thinking”. At their core, these newer approaches advocate for obsessively focusing on what customers really need and working backwards from that. (more on this in future posts).

Human centric approaches can also help us try to predict the ongoing success of our company or division:

  • Which type of customer has been responsible for our success to date?
  • Are these customers’ needs changing?
  • Do I understand what we’re doing to meet these changing needs?

Later this month I’ll be writing about some interesting visual models that can be used to identify and map out decisive terrain, but for the time being, here’s one example of how a primary focus on Customer Value can help us build strategy.

The Lemonade Stand:
Imagine we’ve decided to open a lemonade stand in a small market square where we have several competitors. It’s a hot summer, and we’ve been working hard, doing everything from squeezing juice to taking cash and packing up at the end of long days. Business has been ok but we’re noticing the competition is starting to reduce prices, distribute flyers, designing logos, etc. How do we compete?

Should we follow their lead? What’s our strategy?

Then we notice that Customers tend to queue up at the shortest line, almost every time — perhaps loyalty isn’t a big factor, and we realize, in hot weather, customer’s value a short wait time above all else! Interesting …

We decide that short wait times is the what customers need the most, it is the decisive terrain, and so we pour energy into keeping ourselves stocked up, introducing better equipment to make squeezing lemons faster, dedicate someone to checkouts, and we consider piloting credit card payment if it proves faster.

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