Civilians Talk Strategy, Soldiers Practice Logistics

If you are not familiar with the following adage, I recommend strongly becoming intimate with its meaning. I have heard it expressed three ways: “amateurs discuss tactics, professionals study logistics” or “civilians talk strategy, soldiers practice logistics”, and my favorite, “amateurs talk tactics, dilettantes talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”

In these, don’t assume the standard definition of logistics. In business it most often means, the commercial activity of transporting goods to customers. In the military it refers to, the organization of moving, housing, and supplying troops and equipment. Do not get stuck thinking of this as A-to-B movements or supply chain management.

The actual meaning of logistics is the means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics. This is hugely important to any business. Businesses seem to think in terms of strategy and tactics only. Strategies often get watered down or compromised the moment you try to operationalize them.

That is because logistics (means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics) is missing. Often, I have seen too many businesses pursue a bunch of disparate tactics that are in search of a strategy. Or roll out a strategy but cannot adequately make it happen for want of smart execution.

Recently I worked with a business who dithered on multiple visions for the company, articulated many competing strategies and greenlit tactics willy-nilly. Every time a new thing would pop up in a meeting or e-mail, I would go batty because I was thinking logistics, not strategy or tactics. I was instantly questioning the organization’s ability to hash through and stay committed to the “means and arrangements”.

Logistics truly is the determinant of a strategy’s success. This was beautifully captured in a centuries old proverb. It describes a situation in which a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads to successively more critical stages resulting in an egregious outcome.

For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Following the First Gulf War, U.S. army officers were recruited en masse by American corporations. These were the folks who knew how to get enough toilet paper and water and munitions to hundreds of thousands of men halfway around the world. Most pundits thought this hiring was for supply chain skills. Actually, the skills were broader. It was these professional’s abilities to minimize difficulties while capturing opportunity.

Elon Musk could certainly use some logistics help in getting new car models out. As can the venerable Apple and not in smoothing the release of a phone but actually using logistics to determine if the release is warranted in the first place.

Amateurs love to talk strategy and puzzle over tactics. Professionals obsess over logistics to determine if they are doing the right things, right. So, when you think logistics in business, I hope you think about it differently now and that you apply it before adopting any strategy or pursuing various tactics.

Quotes on Logistics

“My logisticians are a humorless lot … they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.”

“What we like to say is that the vision for Uber is the cross between lifestyle and logistics.”
Travis Kalanick

“Bitter experience in war has taught the maxim that the art of war is the art of the logistically feasible.”
ADM Hyman Rickover, USN

“I am tempted to make a slightly exaggerated statement: that logistics is all of war-making, except shooting the guns, releasing the bombs, and firing the torpedoes.”
ADM Lynde D. McCormick, USN

“… in its relationship to strategy, logistics assumes the character of a dynamic force, without which the strategic conception is simply a paper plan.”
– CDR C. Theo Vogelsang, USN

“Strategy and tactics provide the scheme for the conduct of military operations, logistics the means therefore.”
Lt. Col. George C. Thorpe, USMC

“There is nothing more common than to find considerations of supply affecting the strategic lines of a campaign and a war.”
Carl von Clausewitz

“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics…”
Sun Tzu

“Leaders win through logistics. Vision, sure. Strategy, yes. But when you go to war, you need to have both toilet paper and bullets at the right place at the right time. In other words, you must win through superior logistics.”
Tom Peters

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