What Napoleon Can Teach Us About Business

Edward Tufte is one of the world's leading authorities on presenting vast amounts of complex data in such a way that it tells simple, powerful stories.

He has self-published four books that are filled with incredible examples that range from the evolution of music to the design of the Vietnam War Memorial - the genius of which is that it lists the names of those it remembers not alphabetically, but by date. Which allows any visitor to see the context and the relationship in which lives were lost. The story of their sacrifice. Not simply the fact of it.

One of the most illustrative examples that Tufte presents is shown below - sadly in limited resolution. You can buy the poster or his books through his website.

The image is a graphical representation of Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812. The brown line represents proportionally the number of men under his command on the march to Moscow. The black line, the number during the return.

At various points you'll see the line's thickness changes dramatically, with the corresponding event provided in a call-out below. For instance, at one stage more than half the remaining force was lost crossing a river, a story that is suddenly brought to dramatic and vivid reality based on the thickness of a black line. The date is recorded, as is the temperature. No small factor in Russia.

This diagram represents a historical reflection of fact. But it's not very hard to envision this approach being used as the projection of a proposed strategy. Afer all, many of the facts were known in advance: seasonal temperature; distance; position of major obstacles.

Sadly, it's the kind of analysis that escapes most business owners who, like Napoleon are fixated on the next big win, as opposed to serious consideration of what they are actually trying to achieve and instead rush headlong into short-term glory. Or worse short-term survival. Worse because surviving is the first step to dying.

As we expand our consultancy and talk to more business owners I'm struck by three things.

1. How much potential exists to build truly great businesses

2. How much effort, money and intent is being expended

3. How much of that is being mis-applied

Napoleon was not the first person to have big dreams.

But as the diagram shows, the difference between a dream and a nightmare can be the thickness of a line.