Over the years, I find it very curious to see how many military terms and concepts find their way into the world of business. Frequently, I will hear leaders talk about “doing battle” with poorly designed systems, giving out “their marching orders” to a group of direct reports, or achieving a “tactical advantage” over the competition. I even hear certain leaders talking about utilizing a “force multiplier” in certain situations in order to gain an advantage.
One word that is beginning to enter into the business lexicon more and more is “asymmetric” in reference to asymmetrical warfare. Recently, I note that Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen in their book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, HarperCollins, 2011, used this word in the context of “asymmetric risk”, namely one where “the downside dwarfs the upside.”
All of this use of the words “asymmetric” and “asymmetrical” has me wondering whether or not people actually understand what it means. In military terms, there is symmetric and asymmetric warfare. In the former, two opposing powers have similar military power, resources and tactics. To win, one of them will rely on execution and often communication to take small or large but significant actions to their advantage.
In the later, i.e. asymmetric warfare, the two opposing powers differ significantly and each tries to exploit the other’s weaknesses. Here strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare are used to off set deficiencies in quantity or quality. The terms often used to describe this action are guerrilla warfare, insurgency, counterinsurgency or counterterrorism.
What interests me this summer is how many organizations are involved in asymmetric business. Many large and small corporations are battling each other for market share. The large ones may have financial resources and people to deploy to their advantage but also struggle with certain systems that have become highly bureaucratic. The small ones, on the other hand, may be viewed as weak but simultaneously can be nimble in their ability to execute. Clearly, there is a significant disparity on paper but the small organizations often are able to work swiftly at a strategic level and suffer set backs before victory. Meanwhile, the systems of the large companies can prevent set backs, trial and error or even failure in the hopes of preserving tactical status quo.
Furthermore, large corporations do not always collaborate quickly while smaller and more strategically nimble companies can only operate effectively through a network of collaborative partners. At the same time, large companies can struggle with internal group dynamics and history while smaller companies with a more strategic and mission focus can leverage their limited time, resources and people to their advantage.
While I recognize that small vs. large may seem simplistic in the world of business and that Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her article, “Transforming Giants” in the January 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review notes that some large companies are agile, nevertheless I believe the use of the words “asymmetric” and “asymmetrical” will increase during the coming years. The key now is to explore the implications of this way of doing busy and to contemplate different scenarios where a team or company may need to enter into such a pattern of working.