Crossing the T: Battleship strategy for business

Here are two lessons for company leaders from this military maneuver

Before 150 years ago, naval warfare looked like two columns of ships (imagine an 11) blasting away at each other’s broadside with uniform damage and loss incurred on each side — like two equal-sized drunks in a bar brawl. Lots of carnage, and the one with the most ships or the most guns per ship likely won.

Whether by luck or design, fleets eventually employed a maneuver in which one would “cross the T” or meet the approaching vertical column by crossing in front of it (see the diagram).

Crossing the T

Here’s why this was effective. The fleet in the vertical line has a problem. Only the first ship can shoot freely at the enemy. The others are just going to blow up their mates. The fleet that has “crossed,” however, can fire all weapons at Ship 1 then 2 then 3, etc. It has at least six times the firepower.

I can draw two business lessons from this military strategy. Perhaps you’ll have more.

First, organizations that keep tight control on mahogany row are like the ships in the vertical line. All the firepower resides with the top. Organizations that allow all their assets to engage in their business through collaboration, effective delegation and autonomy have much more firepower than the one that requires action of approval from the top.

Second, I’ve frequently worked with companies that wanted to move from a product-driven to a market-driven strategy. For instance, one of my clients addressed a specific market with a specific product. So did all the competition. Like naval warfare from 150 years ago, they lined up and shot lead at each other, and the one with the biggest marketing budget won.

Through asking the right questions, my client realized that it could better address this market’s needs with different products and services with multiple price points and value. It crossed the T by switching from “Want to buy a widget?” to “Let me better understand your needs and offer several solutions to meet them.” More artillery firing on the target.

How can you cross the T in your market?

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