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 Forbes.com:
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.
In 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.