retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

As hard as it is to believe, there are lessons to be learned from Al Qaeda. And yes, it pained me to write that sentence.

But the lessons are real and were outlined definitively by retired General Stanley McChrystal during the opening session of this year’s National Grocers Association (NGA) show in Las Vegas.

McChrystal explained his role overseeing the joint strike force of America’s elite forces during part of the war in Iraq. As he explained, the US forces held every advantage - in manpower, technology, intelligence and, of course weaponry.

Despite all that, winning the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq went poorly for a long time. For example, information and decisions on the US side followed a traditional organizational structure, with power consolidated at the top. Al Qaeda had no such structure. Rather, the terrorist group was simply a loose group of people, all interconnected by consumer technology and unburden by an org chart or bureaucracy.

When the US side responded in kind by turning the organizational chart into a matrix of action, the battle changed. Suddenly decisions were made quicker and people with knowledge from the front lines were more able to influence actions and results.

So how does that connect to your business? You could argue: in every way possible. Challenges today come in countless directions - whether from emerging competition, changing consumer demands, new technologies or more. As Dan O’Connor of Retailnet Group explained in his general session Monday, the challenges are more varied than ever. That in turn requires retailers to think differently, flexibly and nimbly.

Likewise, Laurie Rains of Nielsen in Monday’s breakfast session detailed findings on consumer behavior that speak to the need for an ever more varied approach. She outlined the many ways shoppers can behave in diametrically opposite ways. For example, while newspaper ads are decreasing in use in many markets, they continue to hold tremendous importance in rural areas.

Or consider that while an increasing percentage of shoppers are moving toward on-line alternatives, a large group - nearly 75%- - remain committed to traditional stores, largely because they want to see and select their own food products.

Cutting through all these contradictions requires that organizations change in the ways McChrystal said the military shifted, by empowering decisions makers at all levels and encouraging insights from all points of the organization.

One more lesson from McChrystal: a serious concern the military had when making its shift was the potential for increased mistakes. After all, giving more people the authority to approve bombing operations could have produced disastrous results.

Instead, the opposite happened.

With more authority came additional accountability and as a result, the military’s precision improved because everyone became that much more careful with their own decisions. One has to wonder if the same could be achieved with far less impactful decisions such as where to build a display.

The challenges of the current world leave all parts of the industry facing a chaotic field of battle, but finding a way to adapt to new challenges is what winners always do.

You can’t control chaos, but you can learn to cope.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
KC's View:
McChrystal made a similar point in March 2015 when he guested on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," an appearance that we took note of here on MNB. He said that "no plan survives contact with the enemy," and suggested that in both military efforts in the Middle East and in modern business, there is an enormous gap between what we were designed to fight and the enemy we actually face. You can see the MNB piece and the "Daily Show" appearance here.