Growing up, I played a lot of computer strategy games. In almost every strategy game, there is always something called the fog of war.
When you start playing the game, you can only see a very small section of the whole map and as you keep playing and explore more of the map, you better understand what the whole territory looks like and can make better strategic decisions.
As a result of playing out the game and trying different tactics in different areas, the fog of war disappears.
The Fog of War in true military terms is a bit more nuanced, but basically covers the same concept -
War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing needed here is a fine, piercing mind to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgement.
In any military action, you have to make a lot of decisions based on limited access to information. So whichever side is able to get better information, gains a significant advantage.
The paradigm shift that seems to have happened in military strategy is the shift from trying to move all the information about the reality of the situation up the chain and instead bringing the top of the chain into the action.
The Vietnam War is an obvious example of these two styles.
The top-down, command and control force with massively outsized resources (the U.S.) failed to overcome a militarily weaker force (the Vietnamese) that was capable of adapting faster because the top of their command chain better understood the foggy parts of the system they were operating in.
While the leaders of U.S. strategy, Robert McNamara, was attempting to dissect the war from thousands of miles away using spreadsheets and field reports, his Vietnamese counter part, Vo Nguyen Jiap, was routinely on the front lines of the conflict.
Jiap’s major breakthrough in the Vietnamese hierarchy was as the on-the-ground officer at Dien Bien Phu – the battle that effectively threw the French out of Indochina.
Jiap spent years operating in fighting zones and as a result was much more capable of understanding all the forces at play at the front before making strategic decisions. He was wading into the fog. He was, quite literally, in the foxholes.
He could see the complex interactions of the system and visualize what the implications of big decisions would be on the ground level. McNamara, sitting thousands of miles away, couldn’t ever comprehend the subtleties of that reality from spreadsheets and military reports.
The significance of morale, local support and an unwillingness to give up are much less tangible and quantifiable factors than things like how many troops are deployed or bombs are dropped.
However, they proved to be far greater leverage points and exert far more influence on the outcome of the war.
By becoming a part of the complex, foggy system, and living side by side many of his soldiers in the conflict, Nguyen Giap proved far more effective in deploying resources than McNamara was. He was a foxhole strategist.
The Foxhole Strategist
The same concept of a foxhole strategist is applicable to any complex system – including businesses and entrepreneurship. The processes that really lead to successful outcomes are usually hidden to outside observers. They aren’t apparent until you get inside of them and get your hands dirty.
Much of the lean movement operates based on the same principles as Nguyen Giap did. Lean companies are forced by their more limited resources to work with the messy details of the system and come to understand the system they’re operating in instead of just throwing money at it.
When he went to visit the front lines, Nguyen Giap was doing what we might call customer (troop?) development.
As Giap discovered, the biggest leverage points in any system are not found by observing a system from the outside if you haven’t “gotten out of the building.”
One of the major impacts of modern technology is that markets are growing more complex and dynamic. There are more and more actors and interactions between them while at the same time, the rate of change is increasing within markets.
Markets are both growing larger and more complex while changing faster and faster.
That means it’s more and more important to spend time in the foxhole before making strategic decisions.
Because, it’s only after you’ve spent some time in the foxhole that you’ll have the understanding to put together a grand strategy.