In these times of unprecedented societal and technological change, markets are evolving in radical and unexpected ways. Business leaders of today need a new suite of tactics. And that got me thinking about the tactics of the ‘guerrilla’.

Business growth isn't as easy to come by as it used to be. A long period of sustained economic growth, and our natural human cognition, has trained us to see the business world in straight lines. One year builds on the next. Markets expand in a predictable manner. This growth was typically achieved through the use of well established, tried-and-tested tactics – like marketing practices that make use of television advertising – that favoured the dominant, better-resourced market players.

Che Guevara once asserted that the guerrilla approach "necessitates acting at certain moments in ways different from the romantic and sporting conceptions with which we are taught to believe war is fought." Transpose this to the business world, and you could perhaps say “for business advantage, act in a way your competitors would never expect”.

Here are a further five lessons from Guevara’s guerrilla manifesto that I think business leaders could do well to consider:

  1. Practice reciprocity and respect

    Build a strong, shared sense of mission, which can sustain your staff in good times and bad. This mission must be clear enough to guide your staff’s actions when enjoying success, and to foster solidarity when under pressure. The conduct of your staff when dealing with customers must be distinguished by such integrity and reliability that alternate suppliers are exposed as merely self-interested.
  2. Acquire deep, localised knowledge

    Establish a fine-grained understanding of the competitive territory in which you are operating, sufficient to create a point of view about their likely future tactics and how they will impact on the customers you serve. Find out what is impacting the business condition and performance of your customers, up and down the supply chains in which they operate. Look for the gaps you can profitably exploit as your customers’ needs evolve, especially at the edges of existing product and market boundaries.
  3. Protect and deepen relationships

    When securing new market territory for your products and services, embed new values and behaviours with your customers and establish strategic defences around your relationship, before moving on to the next objective.
  4. Be flexible and agile

    Create a holarchical structure, comprising many smaller units, with authority devolved to the front line and information flows enabled in every direction, in real time. Adopt a dynamic strategy, exploring many tactical options in parallel, and pressing your advantage when opportunities arise.

  5. Build from strengths

    Focus on building new businesses based on the strengths of existing ones, taking the core skills and values and leveraging them into new markets. Where necessary, this may mean actively dismantling the predecessor business and redeploying its resources.

In an environment of deep political unrest and uncertainty, guerrilla tactics helped Guevara and his followers gain the support of a majority and ultimately achieve dominance. I believe business leaders could also take note.