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Do you believe in miracles? In the summer of 1940, against all odds, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” became the largest evacuation in military history – saving over 338,000 lives over the course of nine days.

While Christopher Nolan’s movie, Dunkirk (2017), elevates our awareness of actual events – it also serves as an analogous illustration we can apply today as business and marketing leaders.

The Dunkirk Business Analogy

Regardless of creative liberties or the extent of dramatization in the Dunkirk movie, it does a great job of demonstrating three entirely different points of view across three parallel time tracks. Specifically, each story in the movie connects through a chronology that parses a week’s worth of action on land, overlaid with a single day at sea, and one hour in the sky.

Not unlike what we experience professionally – the analogy is drawn through the diversity of roles, circumstances and timelines of people working toward a common purpose. As a simple example, consider the differences between a chief executive and an assistant manager.

While the executive may be planning what happens in the next three years, the assistant manager is more likely focused on the next three days. The information used, and the coordination that each relies upon to make decisions and take action may be entirely different. Yet they work within the same organization, serving the same mission under the same values.

For our purposes, the Dunkirk business analogy – between land, sea and air – can be thought of as three functions of strategy, contributing to the same overall mission at the same time:

On Land (Your Brand Strategy)

The role of troops on the beach occupies the longest timeline in Dunkirk. In the face of great peril, they had to defend their position. Sometimes, that meant moving quickly at just the right time. Mostly it was exercising great patience, relying on the vision of where they were headed to encourage and inspire.

Such is the case with your brand. The importance of your position is analogous with your very identity. How you are authentically different must evolve yet be established, regardless of the risks you see daily. You may quickly alter your look – but changing your location with respect to what you believably say, do and express is a long-term play.

At Sea (Your Marketing Strategy)

The role of ships and boats over the course of a day represents the movie’s intermediary timeline, connecting what was happening in the air to the purpose of those waiting on land. The volume and complexity of challenges at sea were all-consuming, from the natural variables in navigation to unexpected assaults from dropped bombs, mines and torpedoes.

This is analogous to your marketing, which includes coordinated campaigns across a shifting sea of challenges. While your (marketing mix) course must be carefully plotted with allocated resources, you know quick adjustments are expected in your future. You must maintain a focus on the horizon to ensure progress in the right direction, but prepare to shift resources based on what suddenly appears right in front of you.

In Air (Your Channel Strategy)

Consistent with the speed of flight, this is the shortest Dunkirk timeline. The role of pilots included fast opportunities to defend ships from enemy fire. Split-second decisions to pull the trigger and flank to the right or left while adjusting altitude was the difference between victory or loss. While scopes were adjusted around moving targets, a steady eye remained on the fuel level critical to making the journey successful.

Such is the case with your channel strategy. You must know the instrumentation of retail, advertising, email, digital, social, ecommerce (pick your channel). A flight plan is coordinated, but you find a constant state of iteration and optimization is needed to improve performance. You achieve quick wins through a combination of your training and improvisation. Like the fuel that makes flight possible, your attention to detail mustn’t stray from the finite resources (budgets/people/tools) that keep your effort engaged and worthwhile.

The Dunkirk Lesson & Model

Our 3-part analogy offers an important lesson in strategy. Adopting a multi-dimensional point of view might be the obvious part, but recognizing time as a variable we can more intentionally control is how we win battles.

What do I mean by this, and how does it practically play out? Beyond the prior example between the chief executive and assistant manager – let’s start by considering common purposes, concerns and circumstances among the three functions we’ve highlighted.

Dunkirk Marketing Model

In the table above, note how significant the differences are for any given group or individual. So how can these functions most effectively serve an overall vision or mission together? The answer is two-fold.

First, relevant timelines and measurements (call them KPIs if you like) must be created for each business function. This isn’t as much about what people will be working on as it is about understanding the separate cadence established to track what’s working, what isn’t and what to do next.

For example, a review of daily outcomes might make sense at a channel level, where a  specialist is actively executing and managing ads in Facebook. But most of that detail and timing would prove wasteful to a larger marketing discussion focused on weekly outcomes for multiple channels. The same would hold true when comparing what needs to be accomplished in a bi-weekly marketing meeting vs. what’s happening at the brand level.

Finally, there must be a healthy awareness of the expectations and related timelines with and among each function. That requires a process/practice (Dunkirk Model) for making it so and goes beyond simply the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing – although, in many companies, that could be a great start.

Just like you wouldn’t expect everyone to be a soldier, sailor and pilot — you would not expect each to adopt the exact set of timelines and measurements. The Dunkirk Model is about facilitating the right communication at the right time between the right people.

It accelerates the overall effectiveness of an organization by increasing the awareness of what matters most across different teams. How? Lessons learned in one area prove to be valuable to other areas. You find oddities and anomalies in one area that are better understood and explained by experts in another area. Yes, this may require forming new habits, and it may directly oppose “the way we’ve always done it.”

But let’s get back to Dunkirk in 1940. Imagine if the British would have concluded there were no options for a rescue due to the way we’ve always done it. The harbor there had been bombed, and the beaches were too shallow for Royal Navy vessels to participate in loading troops from ashore.

While the Nazis steadily mowed through the Ardennes Forest toward Dunkirk, something truly innovative was required. That came as a call for help to smaller civilian ships and boats willing to help pick up troops and take them to larger ships awaiting further north.

From ferries to fishing boats, around 1,000 civilian vessels boldy responded to the call, putting their own lives in harm’s way. The outcome far exceeded expectations, and helped spare the bulk of Britain’s trained troops needed for the future defense of the nation.

How will you innovate, even in areas where the odds are stacked against you? Like Dunkirk, consider it’s not always about what or who you already have. Innovation may start with a simple ask for help. It may then follow by using available resources in a way you never have. If you’re interested in help with applying your own Dunkirk Model, feel free to get in touch with us.

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Jason Cormier

Jason Cormier

As co-founding Partner of Room 214, Jason is dedicated to helping people and companies grow and innovate. He is a best-selling author of Transformative Digital Marketing, is on HubSpot's Global Partner Advisory Council and serves as a mentor for social entrepreneurs at Watson University. He believes in acting out of love instead of fear, connected leadership and open book management.
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