Unordinary Thinking No. 40 – Your game, your rules

If the game has always been football, the opposition would like you to play football, and they assume you will play football, is it sensible to play football?  Or, if you want to win, does it make more sense to play a different game?

Last month I read the obituary of a gentleman I had previously learned about whilst travelling in Vietnam who did just that.

General Vo Nguyen Giap died last month at the age of 102.  Looking back on his life and what he did, you would surely have received long odds on him surviving to this grand old age.  Giap was a military commander in the Vietnamese army from the 1940s through to the 1970s and was a key architect in his long game of kicking both the French and Americans out of his homeland.

So how did the son of a farmer, with a law degree and no formal military training, drive out two Goliath colonial powers with overwhelming advantages in terms of military apparatus and firepower from his poor and undeveloped country?Giap

Well perhaps it was precisely because of this lack of a conventional military education.  Such schooling would have meant a propagation of status quos, an emphasis on might and (over) confidence in the omnipotence of having the latest military technology.  By not being clouded and directed by the solutions to someone else’s previous problem, it leaves that person free to apply their own thinking and creativity to solving their own, current problem in its own, current context.

The above was coupled with Giap’s innate confidence and clarity in the strengths of his fellow countrymen and what they would be prepared to suffer to take back their occupied motherland.  It was a powerful and fertile cocktail for generating the type of unordinary thinking which gave birth to his unconventional strategies and surprising tactics.

Two examples.  The first a huge, war defining battle with the French and the second, an example of the myriad of clever tactical activities which inexorably sapped the strength and will of the Americans until they, effectively, gave up.

The French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, in the north west of Vietnam and close to the border with Laos, has been described as one of the worst and most humiliating in their history.  Dien Bien Phu was a remote outpost, surrounded by mountains, which the French had identified as being strategically important in their occupation of Vietnam.  They had strongly fortified the valley by initially flying in experienced paratroopers to establish seven armoured positions-each named, in rather Gallic style, after the French commander’s seven mistresses.  The French were very confident about the fortress they had constructed with its superior artillery, 13,000 troops and because it was surrounded on all sides with hills which were densely forested, steep and with an inhospitable and foggy climate rendering them, they believed, impassable.  It was against this backdrop that General Giap sensed his opportunity to take back Dien Bien Phu.

Firstly he recalled the words of one of his heroes-ironically enough, Napoleon.  “If a goat can get through, so can a man; if a man can get through, so can a battalion.”  Over a period of two months, Giap commenced slowly bringing 55,000 men, 20,000 bicycles and hundreds of pieces of heavy artillery including anti aircraft guns, physically carried up piece by piece.  By the time they were ready to engage with their enemy there was so much Vietnamese artillery, heavily camouflaged in the mountains, that it outnumbered the French by about four to one.  The second part of Giap’s assault was to then, unbelievably, painstakingly and silently dig hundreds of tunnels down from the tops of the mountains surrounding the French on all sides.  They came so near to the French it is said they could hear them talking.

The French could not countenance being outnumbered in terms of motivated and dedicated troops.  But they were.  They did not believe their enemy would have any ability to outgun them.  But they could.  And they thought it impossible for a military force to be able to surround them in this most unforgiving terrain.  But it was not.  After nearly two months of siege and fierce fighting, the French were overrun and defeated-not just in this battle but also the war.

Less than ten years later, the second example pitted Giap against a new invader.  He asked his best soldiers to infiltrate the American bases on the outskirts of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh).  Using stealth and audacity, together with American complacency of feeling safe within their southern stronghold, they repeatedly broke into the barracks of the US Army.  And what did Giap ask his soldiers to do?  Gain immediate benefit by killing as many GIs as possible and destroying their sophisticated weapons?  No.  He told them to steal their soap.  And then, by ensuring his own soldiers used this soap to wash, the Vietnamese were able to put the American dogs used to track the Viet Minh off their scent.US Embassy Saigon

Thus they deliberately laid false trails deeper into the jungle. They set booby traps and continually led the US soldiers through water, knowing that their boots were wholly unsuitable to the humid, tropical climate and would cause them to develop Trench foot-a horrible, debilitating and morale sapping condition.

Two examples showcasing Giap’s unordinary thinking:  Playing a game with rules that suit you rather than your opponent.  Innately understanding and utilising an adversary’s weaknesses to your benefit.  Maximising the assets you have, rather than wasting time on those you don’t.  And always playing with a clear vision of winning the real war whilst simultaneously executing congruent tactics dedicated to this end.

I wonder how General Giap would have used these philosophies if he were to design strategies for the challenges we face in today’s commercial world?  I suspect he would have rather liked observing others playing football.  But out on the field, he himself would have played an altogether different game.


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