Business is not war and war is not business

Back in 2013 Facebook integrated competing ad servers into their own ad serving system. Apparently this was part of “… a war to define the value of advertising“.

Analyzing this commonly used metaphor – succeeding in business is like winning a war – provides an interesting lesson for anyone competing in high tech or business.

The connection between business and war

The parallel makes sense. Competition has winners and losers. So does war. Business requires strategy. So does war.

And the goal of war is to destroy or conquer. When is that the goal of business?

Similarly, a lot of military life consists of following orders from other people. It doesn’t matter if they’re qualified to make decisions. An order from someone with a higher rank is an order. When do businesses thrive under those circumstances?

Actually… There’s no hard truth here. It depends on the nature of the market and the work that has to be done.

When business is a war

If you want to understand how to choose a good metaphor consider the following

What does this metaphor highlight? If you’re talking about war, then it’s competition or control.

What does this metaphor conceal? If you talk about war then you are concealing the customer or market. In a war metaphor, customers or markets are just prizes to be won in the fight with competitors.

Are there alternative metaphors? In the article referenced above the author also describes internet advertising with metaphors about transporting goods via shipping containers and building models out of lego blocks.

Who is the audience for this metaphor? If you had to explain internet advertising to someone who just came out of the military, then maybe you could talk about Google as the army, Facebook as the marines, Twitter as a ragtag bunch of misfits and so on :p.

How knowledgeable are you about this metaphor?  I worked with two different executives who mentioned being inspired by Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Neither of them knew military history or had served as soldiers. They were idiots :-).

So back to war as a metaphor for business… Internet advertising is a high growth market where more than one or two businesses can survive or even thrive. Success usually happens because employees find creative ways to solve customer problems that save money or do something that other products can’t.

So for internet advertising? No. War doesn’t work as a metaphor.

War as a metaphor could work when creativity is not a key part of serving customers. People who *have to* follow orders are usually not creative. War as a metaphor could also work if the market is one where gains can only be made at the expense of someone else. Like opening up a new supermarket next door to one that’s already there.

Choose your metaphors carefully

When it comes to making decisions the way you describe a situation exerts enormous power over the options you recognize and the solutions you favor.

Compare what comes to mind when you talk about winning a war… Building a better mousetrap… Running a race… Solving a puzzle… So choose your metaphors carefully.