Actually understanding the problem you face is better than vague statistics about the problem

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

This is a very long metaphor about bad business reasoning versus situational awareness, but I like the point being made:

The battle of Thermopylae (the tale of the three hundred) and the clash between the Greeks and the mighty army of Xerxes has echoed throughout history as a lesson in the force multiplier effect of landscape. Themistocles devised a strategy whereby the Athenian navy would block the straits of Artemisium forcing the Persians along the coastal road into the narrow pass of Thermopylae where a smaller force could be used to hold back the vastly greater Persian numbers. I’ve provided a map of this below.

Now, Themistocles had options. He could defend around Athens or defend around Thebes but he chose to block the straits and exploit the landscape. Each of Themistocles’ options represents a different WHERE on the map. In the same way that our enlightened Chess player has many WHEREs to move pieces on the board. By understanding the landscape you can make a choice based upon WHY one move is better than another. This is a key point to understand.

People often talk about the importance of WHY in strategy but WHY is a relative statement i.e. WHY here over there. To answer the question of WHY you need to first understand WHERE and that requires situational awareness.

Now imagine you’re in that Greek army. Themistocles had turned up on the eve of battle, he had enthused the troops with purpose and a goal — “We need to defend the Greek states against the horde of Xerxes”. Let us assume the Greek army (a collection of state armies) had varying but overall decent principles e.g. working as a team, being skilled in what you do, collaborating with each other and were well trained. But now imagine, that no-one on the Greek side had a concept of maps or even an understanding of maps.

Themistocles steps forward and tells the troops to have “no fear, we are the greatest warriors in the world” as he announces his great vision in the form of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) diagram.

How confident would you feel? I know I’d be running for the hills. Now in terms of combat, I’d hope you’d agree that a strategy based upon an understanding of the landscape is going to be vastly superior than a strategy that is derived from a SWOT. Equally from the point of view of communication and learning then a map beats a SWOT hands down.

…The problem that exists in most businesses is that they have little or no situational awareness. Most executives are even unaware that you can map the business environment and increase situational awareness. They are usually like the Chess Players using the Control Panel and oblivious to the existence of the board, relying on magic secrets of success from other players — “I hear Amazon just did this, we should do the same”
I say oblivious because these people aren’t daft, they just don’t know that a landscape exists. But how can we be sure this is happening? Language and behaviour are often our biggest clues. If you take our two Chess players (White with little or no situational awareness, Black with high levels) then you often see a marked difference in behaviour and language.
Those with high levels of situational awareness often talk about positioning and movement. Their strategy is derived from WHERE and so they can clearly articulate WHY they are making a specific choice. They tend to use visual representation (the board, the map) to articulate encounters both present and past. They learn from those visualisations. They learn to anticipate others moves and prepare counters. Those around them can clearly articulate the strategy from the map. Those with situational awareness talk about the importance of WHERE — “we need to drive them into the pass”, “we need to own this part of the market”. They describe how strategy is derived from understanding the context, the environment and exploiting it to your favour. The strategy always adapt to that context.

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