A set of principles does not make a strategy

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… in world of warcraft or business.

I’ve often found World of Warcraft to be a useful vehicle for explaining basic concepts of strategy. In this example, I want you to imagine two teams — the horde and the alliance — preparing to fight for the first time in a battleground called Warsong Gulch. Both teams have a short time to prepare before the game of capture the flag commences. Neither team has been to Warsong Gulch before or has experience of fighting in battlegrounds. Just for reference, when your character is killed in the battleground it resurrects a few moments later in your team’s graveyard.

One team (the Alliance) outlines its strategy for how it’s going to win the battle. It consists of what they describe as five “universal” principles that they’ve all agreed upon. These are :-

1) We’re going to capture the flag and win the game! We’re not going to just fight the opponents.

2) We’re going to do this with great people! We’re going to be the best fighters (known as tanks, good for taking damage), mages (damage dealers) and healers. We won’t just let anyone be in the team.

3) We’re going to be prepared to take risks and fail fast! We’re not going to just play it safe.

4) We believe in a supportive culture! We’re going to help each other when asked.

5) We’re open to challenge and asking the hard questions.

The team is enthusiastic and ready to go. Facing off against them is the team of Horde players. They’ve also spent their time preparing but the result is somewhat different. This team understands the importance of maps and uses them for strategic play. They have a map of Warsong Gulch and have developed a “strategy” of :-

Focus : capture the flag and win the game

Doctrine to be applied (i.e. universal principles) :

1) Develop mastery (perform your role the best you can) — tanks take the hits, mages dish it out, healers heal.

2) Act as a cell (a single unit) e.g. use concentrated fire, work and move together.

Strategy (context specific play) :

1) To begin with team will act as one cell in an initial all out attack. The group will quickly move through central tunnel towards enemy base, taking out opposing players that interfere. Always take out opposing healers first, then damage dealers and then tanks.

2) Once their flag is captured by our tank, the group will work to take out opposing players and setup camp in their graveyard (see map) killing off opposing players as they are resurrected and before they create any form of group. Taunting opposing players is encouraged.

3) Once their graveyard is contained, the cell will split into two cells. A small offensive group consisting of a couple of mages will take out opposing stragglers and the larger cell (including our flag carrying tank) will continue to camp out in the opposing team graveyard killing all players that resurrect. Once opposing players are contained in graveyard the cell will reform and a solo mage will keep running the flag. If the plan fails then the group will reform around our flag carrier.

Now, the Horde team has focus, principles and some form of strategy. It might not work but then the Horde players can use their maps to refine their gameplay with time. I can almost guarantee that when the battle kicks off, the first question from the Alliance players will be “Should we attack or defend?” and “Where do we need to go?”

Arguments within the Alliance team will then happen and before they know it the Horde will be upon them. The next cries you’ll hear from the Alliance members will be “Help!” and “Why is no-one helping me, I need help here!” and “Where are you?” followed by endless bickering that this or that player isn’t good enough to be part of the team and lots of shouts for “What is going on?” or “Where is everyone?” or “Should I grab their flag?”. In all likelihood, the Alliance team will be quickly broken into a panicked rabble.

The point I want to emphasise is that principles are fine and yes strategy has to adapt to the game but don’t confuse the two. A set of principles does not make a strategy. Though it’s certainly better to have a set of principles than to have no principles and no strategy. This is equally applicable in business.

There is however one final thing I want you to consider. Imagine that there are teams of Horde and Alliance players. Imagine that the Alliance players not only have no map, they’re not even aware of the concept of a map. All they can do is try some principles and share them from one team to another as “Secrets of success”. Imagine the Horde players understand the concept of maps, use them and share between them. Pretty soon, every Horde team will be winning using a wide variety of strategic plays. The Alliance doesn’t stand a chance until every player has built some mental model of the world. Every World of Warcraft player will tell you this. Maps are really important.

Now ask yourself, what do we do in business? Are we using maps for context specific gameplay and learning or is our strategy more akin to copying “secrets of success” and principles from other companies i.e. we should be like Amazon, Netflix or AirBnB? Are we playing the game like the Alliance or the Horde?

If you’re going — “Well, how do you map a business?” — it’s fairly easy. To help you on your way, I’m writing a book, all creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International on just how to do that with a technique that I’ve been using for over a decade.

Originally published at blog.gardeviance.org on January 6, 2017.



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