Warfare of Innovative Ideas

By J. William DeMarco

In speaking with a colleague the other day regarding gaining traction with new innovative ideas in large organizations we quickly devolved into a history lesson.  Selling ideas is indeed an art form, especially when senior leadership might be more concerned with survival vice improving the organization.

As we discussed the concepts, it was quite clear the ideas were beneficial, low cost, and a true win/win for all concerned…but there was still concern that leadership might not be interested.

It soon became clear we would need a quick study in maneuver warfare…and as I am sure most people would do, we started discussing Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and his concept of Kesselschlacht or cauldron battle.

General Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) was the great figure of nineteenth-century German military history. During his thirty-year career as chief of the Prussian General Staff, Moltke and a small group of staff officers enacted radical innovative reforms within the Prussian military.

More than any other figure during the nineteenth century, Moltke balanced new technology and mass armies with the unchanging characteristics of war, something that we are in dire need of today.  As a result, Prussia won wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71) in the so-called German Wars of Unification. In doing so, Moltke created the model for German operations during World War I.

Moltke had developed a successful operational doctrine, later…faulty implementation of his doctrine resulted in a German defeat on the Marne, and the armies descended into trench warfare along the western front (Technology had changed considerably in four decades, with the machine gun and considerably more powerful artillery swinging the balance of power decisively to the defense. Leadership failed to account for such drastic changes)

Moltke’s art of war can be organized into three distinct characteristics: the importance of the Aufmarsch (initial deployment); a preference for the Kesselschlacht (cauldron or envelopment battle); and the use of Auftragstaktik (mission tactics)

Moltke’s first constant in war was the Aufmarsch, the initial deployment of the army. Efficient orders/intent/communication via the telegraph, as well as proper assemblage of troops, would result in a rapid mobilization of forces. He emphasized that if these demands were not strictly adhered to, the entire campaign could be ruined

Moltke’s second constant in war was the Kesselschlacht, the envelopment of the enemy army. Here, he applied his doctrine that preached the strategic offensive and the tactical defensive. Utilizing this formula, one army pinned the enemy in place while another army hit the enemy in the flank and rear.

Moltke’s third constant in war was the use of Auftragstaktik, mission tactics for army officers. The supreme commander gave his subordinate commanders a general mission. Then, the application of these orders was left to the field officers. In other words, Moltke’s officers carried out his plan, as general headquarters played a secondary role. He devised a simple plan, then trusted his General Staff, which had undergone vast reforms, and placed a staff officer along side the large unit commanders. He also stressed that orders must be direct, clear, and concise. Otherwise, the main objective might be misunderstood or even forgotten.

Moltke stated “strategy is a system of expedients” and “no plan survives contact with the enemy’s main body.”

What in the world does this history lesson have to do with innovation?  Moltke’s  three distinct characteristics:  Aufmarsch (initial deployment);  Kesselschlacht (cauldron or envelopment battle); and Auftragstaktik (mission tactics) are all very applicable to any plan seeking buy in for innovative ideas.  Let’s focus on the Kesselschlacht.

Kesselschlacht — the art of encircling the enemy — Von Moltke developed he concept circa 1866-1870, and was the prelude to blitzkrieg doctrine.  In his issuance of The Regulations the Higher Troops Commanders, Von Moltke stressed deep encirclements.

He warned against the  futility of  frontal
attacks,  and  urged whenever possible  that
Russian troops should attack the flanks of
the enemy position.  The Regulation stressed
movement to get better firing advantage; and
flanking became a key element  in Prussian

The concept of cauldron warfare is basically surrounding the enemy and placing your offensive forces in a defensive posture…which is usually the stronger position.  How do we encircle senior leadership with ideas?

Through buy-in at the mid and lower levels.  Agreement is not necessary, but through Aufmarsch the initial deployment is understood and Auftragstaktik ensures the divisions are harmonized….The idea of selling innovative strategy to someone who is not buying is frustrating, but if there are allies to be had at the mid and lower levels of management…seek those alliances in order to encircle the senior leader.  If all of a CEO’s divisions bring similar ideas and concepts forward… leadership is forced to listen and at least consider and soon to realize their position maybe compromised.

The Kesselschlacht concept has been successful in several military conflicts.

It has also worked in several boardrooms… many times without senior leaders even realizing they were beat by General Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) and his Kesselschlacht

4 Replies to “Warfare of Innovative Ideas”

  1. Nice work, Sir. So if I understand your argument… Kesselschlacht can be used as a subversive means of winning the approval of your superiors by attaining conceptual buy-in of an idea from their peers and subordinates before you sell it to them. I think this should probably only be considered if you perceive that your superiors are either afraid of change, incapable/unwilling to make a decision, or are very risk averse. This is a tactic that assumes your leadership will say no to a good idea when presented with it directly. I see this as a way to overcome a bad leader. If you are combating a leader’s personality, it could be exceptionally useful. On the other side of the coin, if you are in a position where you are considering using von Moltke tactics against your leadership, you are clearly swimming against the current. In going down this road, you also might be missing something an important reason that the senior leader would not want to accept this idea… then you waste a bunch of time trying to convince others in vain.
    It is frustrating that time and effort should be spent on endeavors like Kesselschlacht within an organization… when the focus of the leadership should be to create an environment that fosters creativity and take calculated risks to make things better. The real question is why is the leadership geared to say no to innovative ideas?… or Why is that my perception of the situation?

    1. Came across this in an email from HBR this AM

      Assertiveness often gets a bad rap. People who are self-confident and forceful can be cast as pushy and annoying. But when balanced with other critical skills, being assertive can help you excel at other things:

      Fostering teamwork: Teams thrive when their members are able to express not-always-popular points of view. Use your self-confidence to set a tone that allows other people to speak up.

      Leading change: Constructive change requires bold moves. Be assertive and break through the resistance that often arises during a change effort.

      Acting with integrity: When coupled with honesty, assertiveness gives you the courage to stand up for what you know is right

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