Offense vs. Defense

The question of offense vs. defense is as old as strategy and was discussed most famously by the Prussian general and author, Carl von Clausewitz. Although he maintained the superiority of the defensive (“properly understood”), he was not one to champion a passive approach to war:

Every defensive, according to its strength, will seek to change to the attack as soon as it has exhausted the advantages of the defensive, so therefore, however great or small the defense may be, we still also include in it contingently the overthrow of the enemy as the object which this attack may have and which is to be considered as the proper objective of the defensive. (end of Chapter IV, Book V)

 Or, as Mike Myatt put it in a recent blog post on

Fact: even the best defense in the world can’t win a game if the offense doesn’t put some points on the scoreboard. Think about any organization that devolved from exceptional to good, good to mediocre, or good to gone and you’ll find they all share one thing in common – they started playing defense when they should have been playing offense.

You might get the idea, though, from studying Clausewitz that the distinction between “defense” and “offense” is arbitrary. They flow naturally into each other according to the circumstance. As a German general once told Boyd, “Defense, offense — they’re just different ways to kill the enemy.” Boyd concluded, and I think you can see this from both Clausewitz and Myatt, that the key is Who has the initiative?

This approach resolves the question of what terms like “offense” and “defense” mean in business (much less in war). If you read Myatt’s piece, you’ll find that what he means by “offense” is “innovation,” which certainly seems to be closely related to taking the initiative:

Think of any great brand during their heyday and you’ll find they defended their brand by playing very aggressive offense. They were in constant growth mode fueled by purpose driven innovation. They did not settle for protecting what they had created, but put everything they had into innovating beyond their creation. Put simply, a lack of innovative thinking is the precursor to a brand in decline.

But what type of innovation constitutes “offense”?  This topic will repay considerable thought, for as IBM did not invent the computer, so Google did not invent search and Apple didn’t invent mobile phones, portable music players, or laptops. And Apple’s update cycle during its heyday wasn’t particularly fast — one iPod model a year in the beginning, for example. Their innovations, like those of Microsoft and IBM before them, were more subtle, in creating “ecosystems” that made it easy to buy and use their products and services. Nobody, it was said, ever got fired for selecting IBM computers, even though they were rarely the cheapest or even the fastest.

MacBookIn that sense of “innovation,” you know Myatt is right, which really makes me wonder what Apple is up to. Now that iCloud seems to be working as promised, they need new products and services to feed the revenue stream (products and services are parts of the ecosystem, of course). As best I can recall, the only major new products the company introduced over the last year are a refreshed iMac, the iPad Mini and the iPhone 5. Somehow, this doesn’t strike me as game-changing innovation.  I, for one, would dearly love a new laptop, but the MacBook Pros available today look suspiciously like my 4 1/2 year old original aluminum MacBook, which still runs all the apps that I use just fine. I’m using it now (the Cinema Monitor is a hand-me-down from my wife, who got the new iMac. It’s about 8 years old and has all of one dead pixel.)

And when time came to buy a tablet, I couldn’t see enough that was new or innovative in the iPad mini to offset its much higher cost. My Kindle HD Fire 7 is a nifty little device, and Amazon’s cloud works as well as Apple’s for what I use clouds for.

8 thoughts on “Offense vs. Defense

  1. “As best I can recall, the only major new products the company introduced over the last year are a refreshed iMac, the iPad Mini and the iPhone 5. ”

    I do not believe there has ever been a company that introduced “major new products” every year. Including Apple under Jobs.

    In 2012 Apple refreshed almost its entire product line. Incremental improvements plus the iPad Mini. That was bold, ambitious — too much so. The designs were almost all successful, as we’re the sales campaigns. But manufacturing so many new cutting edge products was beyond even Apple’s ability (this is one of their core skills, and CEO Cook’s expertise). Production constraints limited sales in many products. Seriously for the iPad Mini; catastrophically for the new Macs.

    Also, this burst of innovation led to the present innovation bust. These cycles are brief (Apple says the next cycle starts this Fall), but that is forever to the mayfly-like business media — for whom yesterday is forgotten, tomorrow is the distant future.

    2012 was a story about hubris for Apple, the opposite of the stagnant innovation story peddled by the business news media. If Apple did those new products over two years, with sufficient manufacturing volume, the current meme probably would be quite different.

    So the real question is what Apple’s senior management learned in 2012. Much, or little? Correct or incorrect lessons?

    • Fabius,

      Thanks. But from a user standpoint, the results of “refresh” and “incremental improvements” are a user experiences virtually identical to what came before. And it’s hard to classify the iPad Mini as more than a catch-up to the already vibrant mini-tablet market.

      Apple, of course, manufactures practically nothing (they do assemble some iMacs in the US).

      As for lessons learned, one is afraid is that the folks at Apple are telling themselves that 2012 represented a “burst of innovation.” Perhaps their new products, which may roll out as early as WWDC starting June 10, will actually show some innovation. No one hopes so more than I.

      • “incremental improvements” are the essence of manufacturing leadership in our world. Toyota, etc. While they might not produce the “wow” effect techo-junkies seek, they add up over time (if they can be sustained). The products that made Apple the leading consumer tech company were the result of slow evolution, with each step often accompanied by reviews saying that nothing much was happening.

        While Apple does not manufacture, they are heavily involved in the manufacturing process. They design the chips, etc. The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t play an instrument, but most experts believe them to be somewhat responseible for the quality of the result.

        Also interesting to see would be your analysis of offense-defense applied to our Forever War against whatever-it-is that we fight. Are we playing offense, defense, both, or neither? Are we winning or losing?

      • Don’t you have anything productive to do? Do you even own a Mac?

        Anyway, your analysis would be fine, if the competitive environment will let them get away with it. My take on Toyota is that although they neglected their famed production system in the early 2000s, their competitors did not take advantage of their lapses in quality or their generally uninspiring designs. Would not suggest that they pat themselves on the back for this good luck.

        And I’m a little confused: What, exactly, is this orchestra manufacturing?

        I didn’t do an analysis of offense-defense. Did your PC drop that part of the post?

  2. The New Yorker’s Epic Fail On Innovation

    a dominant scenario is big corporations defending their position … even corrupting the patent system to maintain status quo … and blocking new inventions … even taught in business schools for MBAs. Even successful companies like Apple falling into mostly defensive tactics (gov. investigating apple for anti-trust activities with publishing industry)

    Boyd’s maneuver warfare was to go around the defensive strong points and forts.

  3. Thought-provoking post. Although I’m really not sold on “innovation as offense/initiative.” Yes, one can torture the word’s definition long enough to “make” it confess to anything, but what have you really gained by that? I can’t help but go back to an insight from Certain to Win which is that all actions are mediated through the customer. Wal-Mart didn’t kill Kmart, we did when we stopped shopping at Kmart and decided to shop at Wal-Mart instead.

    So while I’m willing to be schooled on this, if I’m wrong, in my mind offense and initiative isn’t about innovation. Offense/Initiative is about grabbing marketshare and customers through efforts that contribute to long-term profitability. Innovation CAN be part of this, but it’s not the only part, nor will the customer necessarily deem your innovation worthy of their attention/interest/money. LG innovated a linear compressor for their top of the line refrigerators. I’ve yet to meet a consumer who actually cares. Meanwhile, plenty of businesses have succeeded by better, more aggressive distribution, sales, advertising, operational efficiency, locations — all without significant innovations in any traditional sense of that word.

    I do think Apple is starting to take a beating from Samsung, whose innovation cycle really is making them the manufacturer of the “next big thing” and making the iPhone look staid and outdated by comparison. I’m up for a new smart phone and I’m seriously contemplating an HTC One or Samsung Note 3 instead of an iPhone 5S, assuming the 5S is released soon and assuming that it does not bring some major changes to the table.

    • Jeff,

      Thanks. You wrote:

      Meanwhile, plenty of businesses have succeeded by better, more aggressive distribution, sales, advertising, operational efficiency, locations — all without significant innovations in any traditional sense of that word.

      Point is that these can be innovations just as much as new products / services (most of which will fail in the marketplace). Whether they count as “offense” or not is irrelevant because that term really doesn’t apply to business. As Boyd noted, it’s questionable whether it applies to war.

      Fabius made a good point (happens occasionally) that the timing aspect of initiative is more complex in business. People will often wait, for example, to see what Apple is going to do before they buy a competitor’s product, but as you note, they won’t wait too long. My guess is that how long they’ll wait depends on how innovative they think Apple might be. So losing a reputation for innovation will hurt.

      • OK. I buy that. But if offense and defense are “just different ways of killing the enemy,” then offense and defense in business are just different ways of acquiring more (profitable) customers and market share. So I guess I was simply stressing that innovation only counts — regardless of whether it’s product innovation or innovative distribution/services/eco-systems/selling strategies/etc — if and when it allows you to (profitably) acquire more customers and market share. Innovation by itself is not guaranteed to do that.

        As for Samsung vs. Apple smart phones. I can’t help but see shades of Honda’s motorcycle war (as you described it in your book). Apple is not losing their reputation for innovation in a vacuum. To the degree that it’s losing it, it’s because Samsung is making them appear less-than-innovative by comparison. The iPhone’s screen never seemed claustrophobically small to me until I saw a Galaxy SIII’s screen. Seems like Samsung and HTC are more actively shaping customer expectations than Apple these days…

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