Use this Military Strategy to Defeat Your Competition

Agile Sales Sales Operations
Use this Military Strategy to Defeat Your Competition

The thinking of military strategists like Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have been widely applied to the world of business and even strategic selling.  The ideas of a more recent military innovator, Lieutenant Colonel John Boyd, have surprising implications for today’s dynamic selling environment.

Lt. Col. John Boyd

John Boyd was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant of the late 20th century.  During the early 1960s, Boyd co-created a new theory of aerial combat and also developed the strategy for the (successful) invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991.

The OODA Loop

Perhaps Boyd’s most important innovation was the concept of the decision cycle or OODA Loop, a tool to explain how individuals and organizations can win in uncertain and seemingly chaotic environments.  The concept can help individuals respond to situations by making better decisions more quickly than their opponents.

Boyd described how organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. He breaks this cycle into 4 interrelated processes, called the OODA Loop, which stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action.

Agile Sales Code OODA Loop

What Harry Hillaker, chief designer of the F-16, said of the OODA theory is that “Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed.”

Boyd believed the ability to apply this decision cycle is critical to survival and success.  He recommended that organizations adopt a decentralized approach to tactical decision-making by training field personnel to first quickly assess their situation and then giving them the ability to respond to their environment based on prior shared experiences.

In their 2003 Department of Defense publication, “Power to the Edge: Command…Control…in the Information Age”, Dr. David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes describe how organizations can dynamically synchronize their actions, achieving better agility and faster response by enhancing situational awareness rather than applying a single operational picture.

How does Lt. Col. Boyd’s theory apply to today’s competitive selling environment? 

Boyd stressed the importance of agility, of empowering field personnel to adapt their approach to the situation they encounter.  In today’s selling landscape, sellers are likely to encounter multiple prospect scenarios.  Rather than relying on a single selling approach, they need to be able to accurately assess their prospects’ situations and then apply the methodology that best suits it.

For example, a seller may encounter a buyer who only requires a very transactional response (e.g., pricing and logistics information).  Applying a strategic selling approach in such cases could annoy the buyer and possibly result in a lost sale.

Sales Agility

Professor Leff Bonney at Florida State University’s Sales Institute has conducted research applying a similar idea to selling.  Dr. Bonney’s research shows that the critical factor in sales success is the ability to respond to varying customer scenarios with the selling approach appropriate for each.

He believes that, rather than training sellers solely as “Challengers” or “Consultative” sellers, companies need to prepare their people to be “Situational” sellers who adjust to different categories of buyers and deal types.

In his research, Dr. Bonney found that the top 10-15% of sellers use three or four different selling strategies , depending on the buying situation. They are adept at very quickly assessing a situation and employing the method that fits best.

He calls this agile selling or the Agile Sales Code.  He stresses that agility isn’t about sellers making it up on the spot.  Just like Lt. Col. Boyd’s, Dr. Bonney’s approach relies first on an accurate assessment of the environment and then applying the right approach based on the company’s prior shared experiences.

Implications for Sales Leaders

What are the implications for sales leadership of an approach originally developed for aerial combat?  That speed is everything – doing the right thing more quickly than the competitor.  The key to winning is to equip sellers to apply the right selling approach faster than the competition.

How to do this?

  • Document your customers’ most likely buying scenarios based on shared observations Do you think your selling environment’s too complex to do this?  That’s what they initially told Boyd about aerial combat too
  • Draw up a series of plays outlining the best response to the most common buying scenarios, based on observed field experience
  • Train your sellers to diagnose which buying scenarios they’re facing and to execute the right play against each
  • Grant your sellers the authority to execute (supported by generous coaching from managers)

The result?  Your sellers will outthink your competitors and take the right actions more quickly, driving a higher win rate and accelerated sales cycle.


Douglas Draper: With a background in sales leadership, Doug defines and implements sales process, methodologies, tools and training to help companies achieve extraordinary growth.  He has enabled sellers at leading technology companies including Apple, SAP, Kronos, Compaq Computer, Akamai and Analog Devices. Contact Doug.