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A Booby-Trapped Management Lesson: What Managers Can Learn From Revolutionaries – OpEd

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The Viet Cong was an armed communist revolutionary organization that fought and after a long-drawn struggle, emerged victorious against the US-backed South Vietnamese government in the Vietnam War, famously dealing the far superiorly-equipped United States military its most humbling defeat. While the outfit was created by the North Vietnam government and supported by the Soviet Union and China, it was essentially a Third-World guerilla force with limited resources. The key to the Viet Cong’s success was improvisation – opportunistically using everything available in its environment, from bamboo to snakes, as strategic weaponry.

Among other types of snares and traps, the Viet Cong made explosive booby traps, which were essentially weak, improvised versions of anti-personnel landmines. Interestingly, Viet Cong’s usual practice was to intentionally use significantly lower amounts of explosives in their charges than the quantity required to kill an average person.

You might be wondering why a vicious and brutally resource-efficient militant group would not wish to deal lethal blows to its targets. Why did the Viet Cong deliberately build inadequately-loaded explosive devices?

The answer to that question is underpinned by a principle vital for managers – ‘Focus’. Management is the art of utilizing limited resources to optimize value creation. A manager can’t do everything, at least all at once. It is foolhardy to even hope for the same. The very scope of a manager and that of the discipline of management lies in the finitude of resources. Paucity of opportunities underpins the very requirement of a manager to reorganize the available resources and means so as to best utilize them to meet the set objectives.

Managerial roles are derived from the organization’s need for optimisation under constraints. That’s where focus comes in. The best manager knows to get everything done enough rather than try to do everything to the fullest and fall short on all fronts. Getting various parameters to their respective levels of adequacy so as to maximize value is essential for a business leader. It is thus of utmost importance to have some degree of prioritization among goals in order to sustain in practice. Emphasizing everything is emphasizing nothing – such emphasis is self-defeating.

It’s easy to focus on mistaking a means for the end, focusing on the path instead of the destination. Sticking to the objective instrument instead of the more abstract purpose it serves is a common reason for downfall of ventures big and small. 

Understanding Focus through Sports

It is easy for one’s focus to shift from the purpose and gravitate towards indicators or parameters used to represent it. There, maximization of such indicators is mistaken for maximizing the fulfillment of the goal, per se.

Take the grading system for example. When students are evaluated with a grading system that is agnostic to the exact score within a specific grade, students’ efforts will inevitably begin to be directed towards maximizing their grades rather than their scores. This would result in students strategically putting in just enough time and effort to ensure their crossing beyond the lower limit of the highest grade instead of striving for perfection and choosing to invest the remainder of their limited time elsewhere, perhaps in replicating the same in other subjects or in other pursuits and pastimes. Most students would artificially adjust their limited time and effort to just cross into the highest grade of each subject since scoring full marks in a subject would yield the same reward as barely clearing the floor of its highest grade.

This is similar to Lawn Tennis, where a player would prefer to distribute their efforts equally across all sets rather than go all-out in the first set itself. Consider a player who exerts a superlative effort from the beginning of the match itself, putting up a spectacle of an inaugural set, and thus exhausts herself early. She wins 14 games in total and yet loses 6-0, 4-6, 4-6. Consider her performance vis-a-vis her victorious opponent who only won a total of 12 games in the same match. When an abstract and complex concept as ‘value’ or ‘quality’ is defined and perceived by ratings, many entities channel their endeavours towards enhancing their ratings (often via malpractices like paid ratings or bot ratings) rather than their quality. Raising their quality directly, of course, would have automatically elevated their ratings in the long-term. This is often connected with misidentified causality, particularly the cause-correlation fallacy, and when it isn’t, it’s about misprioritization.

Let’s again borrow some illustrations from the world of sports. Sprinting is definitely essential for being a good football player and upto a certain threshold, improvement in running ability is positively correlated with improvement in overall performance. The fact that the average football player is on average a significantly better sprinter than an average person, doesn’t mean that maximizing sprinting prowess would translate to maximal performance on the football field. Of course, in spite of his enthusiastic stint at the game, the greatest sprinter Usain Bolt is not a great soccer player. If an aspiring soccer-player focuses on maxing out their sprinting prowess, they would deviate from their core goal, missing out on bringing the other key competencies like dribbling and shooting to their respective requisite levels.

Becoming a Sumo wrestler takes a lot of systematic weight gain through strategic surplus eating and training. However, if one were to equate becoming a sumo with gaining weight, conflating the means with the end, one would end up nowhere in the Sumo arena.

The bodybuilders with the biggest biceps don’t have the best forehand topspin in the word nor does the Olympic high-jump record holder play in the NBA or deliver the meanest smash in badminton. Essential skills are requisite components not end-goals in themselves or even necessarily proportional to the end-goals. Being too general or being too specialized can prove to be one’s undoing – a tennis player who focuses on developing their core competency – say a strong backhand or robust baseline play achieves success and distinction, while one who focuses exclusively on mastering a particular variant of the forehand topspin would likely never make it to the big league. Similarly, another who devotes equal time to practising lawn tennis, squash, table tennis, and badminton, striving to become a professional in all of them, would never make it through either.

Focus in the Tech Industry – The Case of Mozilla

Nokia, whose longtime slogan was ‘Connecting People’ lost sight of its own vision and purpose, envisioning itself as a ‘cellphone maker’ instead of a technology company. Its focus on its formulaic hardware and lack of investment of resources and efforts into developing a competent software led to its downfall.

Despite being vanguards in digital imaging, the brand which once was a byword for photography, Kodak, shortsightedly focused on the implement rather than the idea of photography, envisioning itself as a film-camera maker rather than an imaging solutions provider. This misplaced focus led to its decline. It is the same reason that a number of Oil and Gas Giants today are exploring Solar & Wind Energy prospects as well, reimagining themselves broadly as Energy Companies rather than mere Fossil Fuel Companies. Anticipation of the future and accordant maintenance or shifting of focus is essential. 

The Mozilla Firefox web browser witnessed phenomenal growth between 2005 to 2010 owing to its focus on innovation – devising new features and utilities for its users. When Google Chrome, a browser built by former Mozilla developers and borrowing heavily from the latter, started capturing the market owing to its lean, clean interface and ready integration on mobile devices, Mozilla visibly shifted its focus on emulating its competitor. Thus began its ruin. Mozilla began trailing Chrome’s steps and therefore began trailing in the ranks as well. It followed every move of its competitors, forgetting its core competencies. It started doing everything that Chrome did, only later, and worse, since many of Chrome’s features made sense in only its integrated Android environment where it came preinstalled and streamlined. It lost its originality and culture of innovation that had been the factor fuelling its growth.

As a result, in addition to losing out on the variable, switching base of users, Mozilla neglected its massive dedicated base of followers by trying too hard to be something else, alienating them and causing them to switch to Chrome as well. In a bid to keep its perceived nemesis at bay, Mozilla undid their unique selling propositions one-by-one, only further accelerating its downfall. Mozilla’s actions made its displacement by Chrome a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such was its fixation with outdoing its archrival that it even attempted developing its own OS without having any other distinct motivation or distinguishing proposition to it.

Needless to say, the much-hyped project ended up being a disaster. Mozilla’s focus was misplaced in multiple dimensions – users, competencies, product features, marketing strategies, and the very number of dimensions it was trying to excel at. The sheer numerosity of qualities that Firefox wanted to unrealistically maximize illustrates the importance of focus as a filtering factor in business endeavours. Mozilla impulsively began to envision itself as a broad technology solutions company without having the knowhow, requisite backing, and genuine interest of being one, instead of focusing on its distinct identity of being an innovative web-browser. It tried to compete with its rival on the latter’s turf with the latter’s rules.

On the other hand, a much older technology company, IBM, illustrates the pitfalls of the other end of the misfocus spectrum. The Big Blue failed to shift its focus in time but ultimately did so just in the nick of time. In fact, IBM’s history is a tug-of-war between focus-sustenance and focus-shifting, generating oscillations between success and failure.

Music companies that saw themselves as ‘Record Companies’ or ‘Cassette Companies’ collapsed when Compact Discs displaced Vinyl Records and Cassettes just as those that had a self-image of being ‘CD Companies’ collapsed when online streaming disrupted the industry.

Being too specific, being too general, and being misplaced in terms of one’s priorities, strengths, and weaknesses are all examples of misfocussing. Consistency in the short-term and Adaptability in the long-term are complementary to each other. Following a fixed vision – a set of abstract ideals as a lodestar while being flexible in terms of the means and implements deployed is the core mantra for managerial success and the key to business sustenance.

So what does all this have to do with Viet Cong’s booby traps?

Viet Cong’s Insidious Lesson in Focus

The Viet Cong’s primary objective was to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and anything and everything it did served as mere means towards this end. Being an insurgent guerilla force, Viet Cong knew it couldn’t take down the S. Vietnam govt. and the US in direct open-confrontations. It thus chose a long-term approach – a veritable policy of a thousand cuts. The militant group was akin to a band of nimble rats on their terrain, opportunistically delivering bites to its titanic enemies, opening small festering wounds, ultimately bleeding the slow, clumsy giants to death. If individual casualties were the wounds it inflicted, dissent was the suppuration that the Viet Cong wished to fester in them. They realized that the best way to take down the towering edifice of the government was to incite discontent towards it and knew this would take long.

By deliberately moderating the quantity of explosive material loaded in its mine and creating other improvised non-lethal snares and traps, Viet Cong ensured that its devices would maim, not kill. Corpses are not tended to but the critically-injured are. One incapacitated civilian meant a reduction of the workforce without an accompanying reduction of a consumer. In fact, mutilated individuals would obviously need more attention, care and support through their everyday life.

This meant that the casualties of its underloaded armaments, who would likely be survivors rather than fatalities, would go on to become economic liabilities on their respective families. Each layperson who would be physically debilitated by the trap would need to be fed, constantly attended to, and cared for by their kith and kin, consuming economic resources and above-average human-hours of effort without being able to contribute much of it. The dead are abandoned, the near-dead aren’t. These casualties would accumulate gradually but steadily and the liabilities of hundreds of thousands of such individuals would add up to burden and overwhelm the country’s economy, creating widespread discontent among the already-troubled populace who would blame the government for the economic inefficiency and welfare failings.

This doesn’t mean that the Viet Cong didn’t kill – its actions directly or indirectly resulted in thousands of deaths of ordinary Vietnamese, in addition to those from its enemy forces. It is just that killing more and more people, esp. Vietnamese civilians, was not the goal of the force but one of many means deployed as and when necessary. The aim was to topple the incumbent regime of S. Vietnam and crippling citizens en masse would serve that goal better on many occasions than simply massacring them. 

Designing traps intended to maim rather than kill would create dependents resulting in economic hardship for their respective families which would in turn amass to strain the land’s overall economy, inhibiting development and welfare, thus generating dissent, resentment, and reprimand towards the ruling government, finally facilitating its deposition. Despite the overwhelming length of the causal chain leading up to it, Viet Cong remained fixated upon its ultimate aim of overthrowing the incumbent regime, never once losing sight of or wavering from it.

Thus, instead of putting its efforts in using its limited material, labour, and time resources towards stuffing the requisite amount of gunpowder into, say, 50 lethal landmines, it would redistribute the same resources towards making, say, 200 non-lethal yet incapacitating mines of a quarter of the potency, maximising its targeted effect and rendering optimal utilisation of all resources. 

Many of the unassuming, minimalist, pernicious traps that Viet Cong used when attacking American troops were based on similar tactics. Many contained just enough explosive to blow off a soldier’s toes or foot causing excessive bleeding and slowing the advance of the entire team down by having to tend to him and carry him along with them. Another of its mine traps contained two charges – a primary explosive that would go off when made contact with or triggered by a tripwire and a secondary trick explosive that would go off after the first one, intended to injure comrades of the potential victim who would at once rush to his aid upon the first explosion. Injuries and incapacitation also had an adverse mental effect, breaking the morale of the US forces to continue marching on and question their own leadership.

Sure enough, such vexing attacks led to a number of American soldiers feeling a sense of purposelessness in various campaigns, defying orders, and at times turning on their own commanders. The Viet Cong’s goal was to try to kill as many American soldiers as possible, that would have proven foolhardy and likely led to a delayed but decisive American victory. Its goal was to hold the American troops back at critical moments – delay them long enough to be unable to lend their ally South Vietnam a strategic advantage and impede them enough to break their morale. Hence, instead of focusing its limited resources into creating some decisively-lethal units, it redistributed the same quota into creating many more non-lethal disruptive units. These measures helped it conserve resources and inventory, operate with greater flexibility, adapt to changes better, and ultimately force a war-weary America to withdraw from the country.  

An instructive parallel in nature would be why snake venom, despite happening to be lethal to humans in many species, isn’t deployed by snakes on humans without provocation. The purpose of a snake’s deadly venom is to immobilize its prey quickly to make it easy to track, catch, and swallow. As even a small rodent like a mouse could inflict severe damage to its limbless predator when it is being swallowed alive, the potent chemical implement complements the reptile’s lack of biomechanical dexterity and mangling and chewing apparatus. In some cases, the venom also initiates an external digestion of the prey. Now, an immobilizing agent would almost always prove lethal in enough dosage and thus also prove to be a killing agent. But that doesn’t change the strategy that it is most effectively deployed with, by a predator. Hence, it’s no wonder why a snake would willingly waste its hard-built and dearly-stocked concoction of concentrated complex proteins on a victim which it cannot consume. Almost all snake-bites are thus a defensive offense.

Viet Cong’s long-term strategy of opening gashes in the government’s credibility through economic destabilization reflected its clarity of purpose and its unwavering commitment to its goal. Their robust foresight is evident in the winding causal sequence of phenomena that it strategically set in motion, all the way from attenuating its mines to usurping control of the country via riddling the economy with unemployment, deftly leveraging micro-incidences to precipitate macro-effects.

The key to the militant outfit’s success was the fact that it never lost sight of its core purpose and kept adapting its means to strive towards the same. Its fixation on its precisely-defined goal ensured that all its resources were utilized to maximal efficacy vis-a-vis its vastly better-equipped and resourced opponent whose disoriented members on the ground had no clearly-defined, consistent reason coherently directing their actions or sustaining their morale.

Businesses can take a lesson from this historical parable to always be mindful of where their focus lies, knowing the reasonable, practical limits of their capabilities and efforts, and directing them in a utilitarian manner to best achieve their desired end-goal. The vital first step is to define one’s vision rigorously and unambiguously. Once a core goal is identified and committed to, various measures and decisions throughout the organization’s course of operations must be taken such that the goal is always fixated upon, strived towards, and never lost sight of.

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, writer, educator, and independent researcher. His writing has appeared in over 170 publications across 50+ countries. He is currently based out of Xavier School of Management (XLRI Jamshedpur).

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