Beware the Sarissa: Protecting The final 20 feet between you and your customer

May 11, 2011

In May 1588 when the Spanish Armada sailed on England, the smart money – no, make that all the money – was on the then-world-superpower Spain. (Literally so: Spain had easily raised a fortune to fund the war, but no one would lend England a penny, so lowly was she then ranked as a military power, and so poor were her chances of survival).

Yet by early August of the same year the Armada had been routed, England was victorious, and Spain was left rueing the implications of an ignominious defeat.

What had gone wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens – storms, illness, strategic miscalculations – but at its most simplistic, the English won because of their recent development of much-improved, more effective ordnance (ship-board cannons). The Spanish, known for fierce hand-to-hand fighting, never got close enough to board the English ships – they were literally blown away by the smaller English fleet with its greater firepower (the Spanish had more cannons – but the English cannons were more powerful.).

Strangely enough, almost precisely the same thing had happened nearly 2,000 years earlier when Alexander, then only just 22 and newly crowned head of the rough Macedonians, decided to invade the then-world-superpower next door: Persia.

What should have been a minor skirmish resulting in the death of Alexander and the rout of Macedonians by the immense and mighty Persian army, instead turned into an 11-year unexpected march of triumph as Alexander rolled from victory to victory, eventually assembling one of the greatest empires ever built and in the process decimating the Persian empire.

The cause of Alexander’s unexpected and thorough-going rout of the mighty Persians? Apart from sheer military genius, again, many things (storms, illness and strategic miscalculations being the stuff of war). But at its most simplistic, the Macedonians were able to take on the larger-numbered, battle-hardened Persians – and win – because of Alexander’s invention of the Sarissa – essentially a massively long (18-foot) spear that the front rows of the Macedonian infantry carried before them, preventing the Persians from getting close enough to engage.

In both cases, the winners won because they each found a new way to control the final 20 feet of combat space. The losers lost because the old method of engagement no longer worked.

How do you engage in the final 20 feet with your customer?

What makes you think someone isn’t building a long spear, or a better cannon?

If someone designed a Sarissa – something that got between you and your customers – what would it look like?

Even if you’re the current world superpower in your industry, what makes you think you won’t be displaced?