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The Sin of Underestimation: Poltava and the Battle of Moscow

| On 01, Dec 2007

Michael S. Slocum

The Battle of Poltava was a resounding victory for Peter the Great. He defeated Charles the XII and 14,000 Swedish cavalry with a superior force of 45,000 Russian soldiers. The battle lasted all day with the outnumbered Swedish soldiers making several valiant efforts against the superior Russian forces. Ultimately the Swedish soldiers had taken too many losses to effectively continue the battle and Charles retreated to Moldavia for five years before he could finally return to Sweden. The captured Swedish soldiers were taken to St. Petersburg and they helped to build the great city.


From October 1941 to January 1942 the Germans attempted the invasion of Moscow and then suffered a counter-attack after the city had been defended. Operation Barbarossa called for the Nazis to capture Moscow in four months but the brutal Russian winter and the lessons of Napoleon were ignored. The Battle of Smolensk slowed the Wehrmacht down and the tide was completely reversed at Moscow.  


What are the implications these battles have for the modern corporation? Charles of Sweden underestimated the skills of the new Russian cavalry under the innovative leadership of Peter the Great. Hitler underestimated the Russian resolve and the Russian winter that decimated his blitzkrieg. Corporations also make similar mistakes in judgment. Leaders assume that prior supremacy will sustain the organization even when an upstart challenger enters their field of excellence. Charles assumed that the legacy of the powerful Swedish cavalry could not be matched by the new Russian horse soldiers. The skills of the entrepreneurial organization are not to be underestimated. Peter the Great made this point at Poltava. The power of a discontinuous innovation will propel the upstart to the market space and the mature market share will erode. Customers have proven to be disloyal unless they have become advocates of a particular product or service.  Other organizations believe that their superior capital will protect them from any onslaught. They also believe that a swift response to competition will quench any threat. The next generation of an existing product or service remedies all challenges. Or at least they hope this is the case. The fickle and ever-changing competitive landscape can render these advantages useless as the money follows the features and benefits of the function being provided. The prevalent corporate force can find itself unprepared for the challenges ahead as the Third Reich experienced as it forayed into Russia.


If Charles had not underestimated his opponent he would not have brought 14, 000 soldiers to battle 45,000. If Hitler had not assumed that his previous victories would be replicated in Russia without consideration of the famous Russian resolve and the accompanying infamous Russian winter things would have been much different. So too, if the corporate leaders of today will prepare for the foe that is coming after their market share, they will not be defeated.  Complacency will be their undoing. Leaders must embrace the science of innovation as they have the sciences of productivity and quality. This is the first step in dodging that exile that Charles found himself facing.