Strategy and the Tricky Nature of Iteration
A classic example of a strategy is the United States Pacific Theater military strategy in World War II. The strategy was Island Hopping to bypass heavily fortified positions and concentrate limited resources on strategically important islands that were less well defended. The strategy had three constructs.
- Conserve precious resources.
- Possess critical islands that supported the drive to Japan.
- Cut supply chains and allow the more heavily fortified islands to wither on the vine.
The execution plan is shown in the map with each green arrow identifying the targeted Islands. A mistake made in the execution however occurred with the battle of Peleliu. Peleliu was initially thought to be strategic because control of it protected MaCarthur’s flank. However, days before the battle Admiral Halsey noticed a strategic opportunity and MaCarthur’s attack shifted, thus leaving the control of Peleliu no longer strategic to his defense. However, even though the strategic value changed, the battle for Peleliu was allowed to go forward.1
The Peleliu case is important to strategic thinkers, planners, and execution leaders because when conditions change, strategic execution has to also be re-examined. Iterative examination of strategic value should occur before the launch of each strategic initiative or project that feeds a strategic initiative to make sure conditions are still right and to adjust as needed (which may include not doing the project).
Peleliu would have been better off reclassified as an island to isolate vs. control. The battle was expected to last only a few days, certainly not more than a week.
- The battle spanned 74 days.
- Cost 13.32 million rounds of 30-calibre, 1.52 million rounds of 45-calibre, 693,657 rounds of 50-calibre, 118,262 hand grenades, and approximately 150,000 mortar rounds.
- The human toll was significant with 1,960 men killed and 6,489 wounded.
- In the end, the airfield on Peleliu never played a key role in the grand strategy of the march to Japan.2
What Should Leaders Do?
The application for leaders in business is to make sure that strategic plans are constantly examined for relevance against the strategy. When conditions change, execution should adjust in order to conserve precious resources, keep people focused on the best things, and continue the intelligent march towards the grand objective. When we remember this lesson we protect stakeholders, keep the confidence of our teams, and strengthen our ability to deliver strategic value.
A Case for Business Strategy and Leadership
Strategy should be broad enough to facilitate iteration as a result of changing conditions. The Peleliu example above suggests that the island hopping strategy was not changed at all, but rather, what should have changed is the Peleliu initiative. The island hopping strategy was broadly defined. The initiatives, though strategic, needed to be constantly evaluated against the grand island hopping strategy.
1 Hoffmoan, Jon T., Major, USMCR. The legacy and Lessons of Peleliu. Marine Corps Gazette, September, 1994.