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OUTthinker Strategy Playbook: Force a Two Front Battle

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Thu, Sep 21, 2017

Force a Two Front Battle, may sound counterintuitive. 

OUTthinker Strategy Playbook - Force a Two Front Battle.jpgIt’s the next most commonly used strategy by Outthinkers to disrupt their competition, according to Outthink the Competition: How a New Generation of Strategists Sees Options Others Ignore by Kaihan Krippendorff,

Force a Two Front Battle, can appear to contradict our Gazelles Coaching philosophy of focus/One Thing,  and the Founders Mentality of Understanding Your Core.

As noted earlier, the concepts Krippendorff develops are based on the strategies in Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War.  To help you understand this strategy I’ll share the original Chinese military example, and a sports example from a previous blog.  

Military History: Force a Two Front Battle

During the Civil War, General Tecumseh Sherman used this strategy, “Force a Two Front Battle” to crush Southern resistance as he invaded the South and burned Atlanta. 

Chinese military strategists advocated “Force a Two Front Battle” over 3,000 years ago.  The Chinese state, Zhao was preparing for an attack by Wei. Worried his state would not be able to survive; their leaders ask a neighboring state, Chi, for help. Chi agrees, prepares his soldiers for battle. At the last minute, just before Chi's forces begin to march to save their ally, an advisor suggests a counterintuitive strategy. Rather than help defend Zhao, he argues, Chi should attack the aggressor. This forces Wei's troops into a dilemma:  Should they continue to march toward Zhao to secure a likely victory, or return home to save the women and children they left poorly defended? Wei decides to return home. By forcing Wei into this dilemma, Chi saved its ally and defeated its enemy in one swift move.

This is not unlike the dilemma the Army football team mentioned in Pattern Recognition- SPORTS – How OUTTHINKERS Topple Thinkers faced: their players could either rush toward the ball, allow Notre Dame to pass the ball down the field, or they could fall back to intercept the pass, in which case Notre Dame runs the ball through the now-empty Army defensive line.

The Pattern

What these two strategies have in common is that the Outthinker forces its competitor onto a two-front battle. On the horns of a dilemma, they can either protect themselves against one end of the horn, while exposing themselves to the other, or vice versa. They cannot do both

Force a Two Front Battle - What's Your Unique Capability - Outthinker Strategy.jpgIn business as in war, the key elements of the strategy are the same:

  • You launch a second attack simultaneously with the first.
  • This forces your competitor to defend against that second attack.
  • In defending itself, the competitor makes itself vulnerable to the first attack or, at least, takes a passive posture.
  • You advance with relative ease.

Force a Two Front Battle: Blue Nile

2016_Blue-Nile-logo.jpgIn the late 1990s, Mark Vadon was looking for an engagement ring. He felt confused. “One ring was $12,000, one was $17,000. I said, that's more than my car cost, and I can't tell the difference. So I asked [the salesman] and he told me to pick the ring that ‘speaks’ to me. I thought that was bullshit.”

Vadon eventually found a new wife and became a diamond salesman. In 1999, he bought a diamond store and launched Blue Nile as an online diamond retailer. Blue Nile was one of the few pure online businesses to survive. In its first four years it grew to $120 million in revenue. In 2003 it went public, and over the next five years, it expanded 250 percent, reaching $320 million in annual revenue. In 2016 the company went private, acquired by Bain Capital Private Equity and Bow Street LLC for roughly $500 million.

The Two-Horn Dilemma

Much of Blue Nile's success comes from the two-front battle strategy. Imagine you are the CEO of a traditional diamond retailer trying to compete with Blue Nile. You know Blue Nile is growing and is more profitable. As you think through your strategy, you become paralyzed by the tough choices:

  1. You could sell low-cost diamonds online. But this would not compete with Blue Nile's high-quality strategy. Blue Nile would keep picking off your high-end customers.
  2. You could offer high-end diamonds online, the same quality as in your store but at a lower price because you don't have the same overhead. But that will just send a message that your in-store product is overpriced.

Now you have to ask yourself: Do I sell cheap diamonds online, or do I abandon any serious efforts to sell diamonds online?

Blue Nile, doesn’t care, because either way, you are choosing not to compete with them.

Force a Two Front Battle: College Hunks Hauling Junk

College-Hunks-Logo-Oval-Hauling-Junk-1.pngWhen Omar Soliman and Nick Friedman, college grads, started collecting unwanted junk, they set out to build an empire. Two years later their business struggled. They sat down with entrepreneurship guru Michael Gerber, (until 2008 I was an E-Myth Coach).  The result of the conversation turned instantly onto a new growth path. They since hit the Inc. 500 list of the US’s fastest-growing private companies.

Gerber asked, “Why do people like to do business with you?”

The team realized it had nothing to do with their garbage-removal expertise. It was because people have fond memories of their college days, and they like helping college students. When they hire College Hunks Hauling Junk, they don't just expect their garbage to be removed, they expect an experience, a connection to earlier, more carefree days.

Gerber pointed them in the direction of the two front battle strategy.

That one insight shifted their company's identity—they would now operate like a university. Suddenly they made a number of small business decisions that seem counterintuitive for a regular junk-removal company. Their untraditional strategy has flustered competitors by forcing them to choose between making painful changes to their operations model or just let College Hunks grow.


By engaging two battlefronts at once, and by executing cleverly on both, Outthinkers throw their competitors into a frustrating, paralyzing dilemma. While the competitors dither about which angle to combat, the Outthinkers move forward to the future.

In your Annual Planning for 2018, are these Outthinker Strategies a top priority?   

They are with my Positioning Systems customers.

If you’re looking for innovative ways to develop your business, contact  Or take our Four Decisions Needs Assessment and we’ll contact you. 

Disrupt Yourself or Be Disrupted By the Competition – Next BlogDisrupt Yourself or Be Disrupted By the Competition.jpg

Disruption is occurring more quickly than ever before.  Turnover on the S&P 500 means a company is replaced every two weeks! Over 40% of today’s Fortune 500 companies on the S&P 500 will no longer exist within 10 years!  Your business needs to either disrupt yourself or be disrupted by the competition.  Will explore this and the last most common Outthinker Strategy Move Early to the Next Battleground, next blog.

Topics: strategy decisions, OUTTHINK THE COMPETITION, OUTthnkers 5 most common Strategies, Force a Two Front Battle, Disruptive Strategies

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The Strategic Discipline Blog focuses on midsize business owners with a ravenous appetite to improve his or her leadership skills and business results.

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