Thu Apr 23 2020 Michael McQueen

A few years ago I discovered that my history class had been wrong all along. I’d always been told that in the Japanese invasion of Singapore, the British were essentially caught off guard — that they were ill equipped and failed to recognise the threat until it was too late. In reality, the British were anything but unprepared militarily. The challenge was that they were unprepared mentally.

The established paradigm in Singapore during WWII was that any significant threat of invasion would come from the sea. As a result, a British naval base was built and the coastline was heavily fortified against naval attacks. The strongest forces were placed near the naval base because the officer in charge of defending Singapore was operating under the assumption that this would be the place of attack.[1] This preparedness contributed to an arrogant mindset that the island nation was virtually impossible to conquer.[2]

It was inconceivable to British military planners that the island could be attacked in any way other than what they had assumed. It was certainly unimaginable that the Japanese forces would traverse the jungles and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula in order to mount an invasion from Singapore’s north-west

But that’s exactly what they did.[3] Continuing to adopt unconventional military tactics, the Japanese used bicycles as an extremely swift and effective means of transport.[4] To this day, the fall of Singapore is considered one of the greatest military disasters in the history of the British army.

When we consider business strategy in the face of disruption, I’d suggest that the missteps and mistakes of this defeat ought to serve as a warning to every business leader today.

The reality is that the British were prepared. They were ready. They’d done all they could do based on the assumptions they held and the information they had. What they weren’t prepared for was an unconventional adversary coming at them from an unexpected direction and in an inconceivable manner.

And it’s the same in business. When I’m working with clients, my strong encouragement is to stay alert to unconventional competitive threats because these are often dismissed or go undetected until it’s almost too late.

History is full of examples of leaders underestimating, dismissing or ignoring the threat posed by unconventional competitors. Take this assertion from Blockbuster’s CEO, Jim Keyes, in 2008: ‘Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.’[5] This, just a few years after Netflix’s founder, Reed Hastings, had offered to sell his company to Blockbuster for a mere $50 million. Blockbuster declined.

What recent months have proved to us on top of this is that unconventional threats are not always competitive. Sometimes the biggest curveballs are not thrown by an opponent but by the environment of the game itself. The context of our businesses has the ability to disrupt us just as drastically as a new competitor, and both are as unexpected and potentially devastating as each other.

In recent decades, some of these contextual curveballs have come in the form of drastic demographic changes with the introduction of Millennials to the market, rapid technological transformations and the empowerment of consumers. For businesses and brands, honing an awareness and peripheral vision of the surrounding context is crucial to preparing for disruption.

In my work with various clients, I have found that there are, among others, 3 key questions that can assist this process of reflection and preparation.

1. What long-held assumptions about the competitive landscape could leave you vulnerable to unconventional threats in the coming years?

Andy Grove famously challenged core assumptions during the 1980s when it became increasingly clear that Intel’s highly successful DRAM memory-chip business was doomed. Andy turned to co-founder Gordon Moore and posed the hypothetical question, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’

Without hesitation, Moore answered, ‘He would get us out of the memory business.’ After a moment’s reflection, Andy Grove replied, ‘Well, why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?’ And that’s what they did.[6] They in turn shifted Intel’s focus from memory chips to micro processing, and within a few years dominated this emerging technology.[7]

In the words of British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, ‘In all affairs, it is a healthy thing to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.’

2. How have you responded to unconventional competition and contextual curveballs in the past — have you fallen into the trap of dismissing, denying, ridiculing or ignoring them? What can you learn from this experience?

I’m sure Blockbuster would have found value in exploring this question when Netflix seemed to be a minor threat in 2008 and the technological revolution and Millennial market were still in their growth stage. Rather than being ruined by the context and competition, they had the opportunity to be sharpened by it and remain at the leading edge. However, history has showed us that, for Blockbuster, ignoring the contextual changes and the competition that seemed like a minor threat at the time was the key contributor to its downfall.

3. How can you foster the sense of alertness necessary to identify unconventional threats when they emerge?

AccorHotels’ global CEO Sebastien Bazin stated ‘Twenty-four hours a day I have my eyes open and I am listening. I want to find out what is it we don’t know and what can we do to create top line growth.[8] Responding to the threat of Airbnb, which having started very small could well have been overlooked by many big companies, Bazin explained how he sees its growth and is trying to expand into its territory. It is this posture of openness, curiosity and alertness, which is constantly scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities, that enables his brand expansion and innovation.

It seems that in recent months, contextual and competitive curveballs have been coming from all directions. While the business world has certainly received more than usual recently, the presence of unconventional disruption is always guaranteed. Reflecting on these 3 questions can help you prepare for it, regardless of the direction it comes from.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics,


[1] Ho, S. 2013, ‘Battle of Singapore’, Infopedia, 19 July.

[2] Truman, C. 2015, ‘The Fall Of Singapore’,, 19 May.

[3] Truman, C. 2015, ‘The Fall Of Singapore’,, 19 May.

[4] Ho, S. 2013, ‘Battle of Singapore’, Infopedia, 19 July.

[5] Rapier, G. 2017, ‘13 Quotes From Bosses Who Mocked Technology and Got It (Very) Wrong’, Inc, 15 June.

[6] Galant, G. 2016, ‘If We Got Kicked Out And The Board Brought In A New CEO, What Do You Think He’d Do?’, Medium, 22 March.

[7] Collins, J. & Hansen, M. 2011, Great by Choice, HarperCollins, New York, pp. 139, 140.

[8] Schlesinger, L. 2017, ‘Airbnb Took From Us, We Will Take From Them’, The Australian Financial Review, 5 May.