The War (Game) Metaphor

The War (Game) Metaphor: Or, My Discomfort With What I Do, by Mark Chussil

(See also my Harvard Business Review article, “‘Rally the Troops’ and Other Business Metaphors You Can Do Without“)

I’ve conducted hundreds of business war games for companies and at workshops around the world. I don’t like the term “business war game.” Uncomfortably (for me), many strategists do like the term because they think it accurately reflects the idea that business is war.

The “business war game” phrase has stuck. At least it promises a benefit we all can enjoy: a break from the everyday rat-a-tat of PowerPoint bullets.

The war metaphor

“A good metaphor can make any bad idea sound good.” — Scott Adams

Although I’m a scarred veteran of many competitive-strategy campaigns, I don’t like the business-is-war metaphor. Not because I’m namby-pamby or lily-livered, because I’m not. Not because I faint at the sight of red ink, because I don’t. On the contrary, I’m as red-blooded and testosterone-soaked as a male MBA ought to be.

I am troubled by the war metaphor because thinking “business is war” can bias strategy decision-making, and not for the better.

Words matter; that’s why we use them. The words we choose both reflect and shape our thinking. So what does the war metaphor reflect and shape? It tars our competitors as our enemies, focuses our efforts on fighting them, and interprets their behavior as hostile.

Incidentally, I’ve met plenty of strategists who viewed their competitors as hostile. I have not met a single strategist who characterized his or her company as hostile. Hmm.

I’m not saying we should think of our competitors as our buddies, help them get their goals, or interpret their behavior as benevolent. I’m not saying we should avoid going head-to-head with them to win a customer. I am saying that the real objective of competitive strategy is our prosperity, not our competitors’ destruction. Clobbering the competition is only one path — and not necessarily one that’s attractive, low-risk, or feasible — to achieving our prosperity.

War and war games

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain

There’s a difference between a war game and a war. Two, actually. First, people die in a war, but not in a war game. Second, a war is about fighting and a war game is about learning. In a war game you test strategies and skills in a safe environment, and you learn from the results. A good idea before you march into real battle, and a good idea before you risk real jobs and megabucks.

That’s why I can be against the war metaphor and in favor of business war games. Assuming “business is war” constricts our thinking; conducting business war games expands it.

(Incidentally, a well-designed business war game is neutral, making no assumption that business is war or is not war. Discovering whether the strategies you’re testing lead to war is one of the key insights you can get in a war game. See the case study in Putting the Lesson Before the Test.)

And there’s another reason we can favor war games: They show us the horrors of war, even the business kind. Many of my war-game stories begin with strategists ready to assault the competition and end with those same strategists discovering that they could better achieve their prosperity objective by less-confrontational means.

This is something I’ve learned from all those war games: Watch out for the war metaphor in your strategic thinking, and challenge it if you see it. The challenge doesn’t cost you anything. You can always go back to the war metaphor if you really think it works.

P.S. Alternative names for business war games

“Call me anything you want, but don’t call me late for dinner.” — My father, to me, when I was about 5. I didn’t get it at the time.

I’ve worked with strategists who embraced the phrase “business war games.” One even had people wear military fatigues during war-game sessions. His objective was not to make them hard to see but to encourage them to think outside the cubicle.

You can call business war games by other names. I’ve worked with strategists who preferred to call them “virtual competitions” or “strategy games.” Just don’t call them too late.


A few hours after I posted this essay, the Wall Street Journal printed a front-page story by Ellen Byron entitled P&G Chief Wages Offensive Against Rivals, Risks Profits. The story bristles with war metaphors, not least because of P&G CEO Robert McDonald’s military background and battle-inspired tactics. Interestingly, McDonald says of his price cuts in 10% of P&G’s business, “In my mind there’s not a price war going on,” and Energizer CEO War Klein says “We are following in order to be competitive. We didn’t initiate this.”

That article, so soon after I posted my essay? Coincidence? I think so.

Further reading

I mentioned that the business-is-war metaphor can bias our decision-making. That’s because the metaphor greatly influences our “mental models” of how things work. For more about mental models and their effects on our decisions, see All About Models.

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