The Garrulous Jay – People, Ideas, Machines

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“People, Ideas, Machines – in that order”. Such are the words widely attributed to US Air Force fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd, who went on to become an acclaimed military strategist.

Boyd’s words were a summation of his understanding of the key elements of warfare. They are insightful in the context of the current conflict in Eastern Europe, but they also have wider lessons for the world of business.

To paraphrase, Boyd argued that there were three key elements to any military strategy:
•    Morale – relating to the will to win
•    Mental – relating to the perception of reality and its communication
•    Physical – relating to the strength and deployment of military hardware.

Russia’s war with Ukraine is arguably a conflict launched by an egomaniac based on a flimsy historical pretext and an ideological mirage, under the banner of a cynical euphemism.

Machines appear to have come before ideas and people. Never mind the perception of reality: for Russian forces in Ukraine perception has met a reality their people back home aren’t even allowed to know.

Contrast this with the extraordinary determination to resist the invasion by Ukrainians galvanised by their enhanced sense of national identity, supported by eye-witness testimony of the true horrors taking place in their country. Moreover, in Volodymyr Zelenskyy they are led by a man who understands better than many leaders the very literal meaning of the phrase ‘theatre of war’.

Russia has more ‘machines’ and the fear is that these will be deployed with increasing brutality, but it is to be hoped that Boyd’s mantra will ultimately prevail in this conflict.

By comparison to the events in Ukraine the world of corporate competition is trivial, but I am not the first to have been struck by the applicability of Boyd’s theory to commerce.

Where Boyd has people, ideas and machines, I would supplement brand, marketing and product.

The foundation of every successful business should be an outstanding product or service. This alone, however, will not be sufficient to guarantee success.

In commoditised markets where choice abounds and there is little to differentiate between competitors, companies need to win consumers’ hearts as well as their minds. It is the reputation, values and image of the business, embodied in its brand, that will do this, driving customers to choose one product or service over another because it makes them feel like a ‘winner’.

Marketing is the means by which that business’s brand is communicated to existing and potential customers, providing constant confirmation and reinforcement that their offering should be the preferred choice, rather than that of competitors.

Not only will this deliver sales volumes that exceed those of competitors, but these businesses will also be able to charge a premium, driving a virtuous cycle as revenues can then be reinvested into the business.

To summarise a great product – or ‘machine’ – is a business’s ticket to the races, but it won’t make it a winner. For that you have to convince ‘people’ you have the best ‘idea’ too.