“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”, remarked George Bernard Shaw.
I was struck by this thought as I was glancing through the papers full of ISIS, Trump, Oil Crash, Syria, Brexit and more. I was wondering if there’s something that we can learn from our past that can help us navigate through the bewildering times that we live in today. Is our world really any different from what it was in the past? With technology, automation and science, our circumstances may have changed but have human behaviour, values and beliefs changed fundamentally? In this context, are there strategies that have worked in the past that could be equally relevant today?
Here are three strategies from history that have particularly caught my attention:
Doctrine of Lapse
The East India Company under Lord Dalhousie expanded its grip on India with the successful implementation of the controversial ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. It was based on the principle that if a ruler of a dependant state died without a natural heir, the right to rule that state passed on to the British sovereign. Some of the biggest states in India over a period of two decades got annexed to the British empire as a consequence of this strategy.
The brilliance of this strategy was in taking advantage of poorly managed succession planning, which was a norm in those times (and still is!). At the point of vulnerability when a state lost its ruler, it could be deftly annexed without shedding a drop of blood, on the back of determined diplomacy and legislation.
Till today, succession planning is a core structural weakness in the global economy. As more and more wealth gets concentrated amongst individuals and families, passing on wealth successfully from one generation to the next is a matter of luck for most and equally an opportunity for the vultures to nest !
The Germans mastered the concept of the ‘lightening war’ through a deft combination of surprise and speed. Blitzkreig was based on the concept of using mechanised units supported by ground and air forces that would swiftly penetrate the enemy fronts by focused action and cause a complete disarray amongst the enemy lines. A key to this strategy was to create fault lines that would break communication amongst the enemy forces and accelerate the panic by damaging the civil population. This was Hitler’s winning strategy in World War II. The essence of this lightening strike strategy was speed, and still more speed executed with precision.
Today we see YouTube videos capturing public imagination of many millions almost overnight. We see election campaigns that use social media to capture voters’ attention with unprecedented speed and agility. We see hollywood movies employing a blitkreig marketing strategy that leads to a USD 100M+ opening despite a weak story (e.g. Batman v/s Superman). We see cyber attacks and viruses causing a contagion with frightening speed and dexterity resulting in billions of dollars in losses. Yet we see all around us complacent businesses caught in a time warp, leaving their gates wide open for disruption.
The Greeks, frustrated by a decade of efforts to conquer Troy, built this magnificent wooden horse that they left at the entrance of the city as they supposedly ‘withdrew’ their forces. The overjoyed residents opened their city gates to welcome this ‘gift’. In the middle of the night as the city celebrated, the soldiers hidden in the horse got out and opened the the city gates leading to the downfall of a proud city state.
Till today, deception is a winning strategy that capitalises on the fundamental human trait of complacency and letting ones guard down on the basis of a thinly veiled veneer of safety and comfort. Uber, Whatsapp, iPhones etc are modern day Trojans that won market shares as their complacent competitors basked warmly in their soon to be extinct success.
I am sure there are many more ideas in our history books that can inspire us to find our way in these times. As an example, the next big thing in technology, ironically, is biometrics (also known as fingerprinting); something which has been in use since the time of the Neanderthals! So discover your Trojan Horse, back it with a blitzkrieg of effort and plan your succession to leave a legacy. Amen!