An odd thing I noticed a long time ago when I was I in the Army was that most of the Lieutenant Colonels I met used to give me a really bad time, and were unpleasant to work with. I accepted this as I assumed that as a young Lieutenant, I was forever mucking things up and the only way I was going to become good at my job, is to have my errors both professional and personal, repeatedly and forcefully pointed out to me.
The odd thing though was that whenever I met a General, they seemed to be genuinely nice people. Sometimes a bit grandfatherly, sometimes a bit scary – but always calm people who made you feel good about yourself and made you feel you could achieve more and were going onto great things. They were also always capable of explaining the “why” of any situation using words or reference points I could understand.
I pondered this on and off for a couple of years, wondering if there was some special course that General’s did that turned them into nice people.
Eventually at a Dining In Night, I plucked up the courage to voice my observation and ask the old general I was sitting next to whether there was a special course they went on. He responded, somewhat drolly, “no son, its just that Lieutenant Colonel is the natural ceiling for the arsehole”.
I’ve taken it with me all my life and it tends to pop into my head unbidden, whenever I am treated badly by someone who perceives themselves as very senior.
Around the start of my career in the late 80’s, Eastern thought was very big in the workplace. There was a growing awareness of Japanese solutions such as Kanban and Keiretsu. Management books such as Miyamoto Musashi’s – The Book of 5 Rings and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War were massively popular as books on strategy. What I found strange though was that these two books were very old. The Book of 5 Rings was written in 1645 and the Art of War in around 500BCE! What was going through my head at the time was, “If I am going to apply military strategy to business, surely there must be something a little more up to date!”. I was certain that we must have learnt something over the last couple of hundred if not thousands of years.
Of course, the answer was staring me in the face. In the Army I had learnt about the 10 Principles of War. These were the ideas first acted upon by French General & Emperor Napolean Bonaparte, then codified by the Prussian Officer Carl von Clausewitz in his essay “The Principles of War” in 1812. Since then these Principles of War have been further tweaked and are now taught in every Military Officer school on the plant.
Each of them are quite simple and in every case can be applied to commercial operations to improve the chances of their success. So what are they?
- Selection and Maintenance of the Aim
A single, unambiguous aim is the keystone of successful military operations. Selection and maintenance of the aim is regarded as the master principle of war.
- Maintenance of Morale
Morale is a positive state of mind derived from inspired political and military leadership, a shared sense of purpose and values, well-being, perceptions of worth and group cohesion.
- Offensive Action
Offensive action is the practical way in which a commander seeks to gain advantage, sustain momentum and seize the initiative.
Security is the provision and maintenance of an operating environment that affords the necessary freedom of action, when and where required, to achieve objectives.
Surprise is the consequence of shock and confusion induced by the deliberate or incidental introduction of the unexpected.
- Concentration of Force
Concentration of force involves the decisive, synchronized application of superior fighting power (conceptual, physical, and moral) to realize intended effects, when and where required.
- Economy of Effort
Economy of effort is the judicious exploitation of manpower, materiel and time in relation to the achievement of objectives.
Flexibility – the ability to change readily to meet new circumstances – comprises agility, responsiveness, resilience, acuity and adaptability.
Cooperation entails the incorporation of teamwork and a sharing of dangers, burdens, risks and opportunities in every aspect of warfare.
To sustain a force is to generate the means by which its fighting power and freedom of action are maintained.
I tend to think that this is a great framework for both building a plan within, as well as analysing the plans of others. Just replace the word military with commercial and it all tends to make sense. But the big one for me is the first, and master principle – Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. Get this right and everything else starts falling into place.
I’m currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb [pls link to ] . Its a fascinating book that discusses why the improbable seems to happen a lot more than people expect. There was a section in the book that talked about the military and how they talk about “Known, Unknowns” and “Unknown, Unknowns”.
This got me thinking about the crew brief you five to your driver when before you move an armoured vehicle. Eg.
Driver your next move will be to the ridge 500m directly to your front. Follow the line of the hill down to the river crossing, then position the vehicle turret down on the right hand side of the large tree you can see on the crest. If attacked by heavy fire before you get to the crossing, reverse back to this position, anything else – keep on going. Do you understand?
Its the kind of briefing that is verbal, off the cuff, but still high quality. It covers:
The desired outcome
Actions on completion
Dealing with risks
What I am interested in today is the part dealing with risk. You see when conducting military operations, you only attempt to forecast risk at the beginning of an operation. When actually conducting the work you don’t try to forecast risk again, you simply accept that the unexpected might happen and plan to deal with it.
In this case the “Known, Unknown” is heavy enemy fire that may occur. Ie the risk that you know of. However there is also the “Unknown, Unknown”. Experience shows that stuff will regularly happen that not only that you don’t expect, but that you don’t even conceive of. You don’t waste your energy at a tactical level trying to forecast, it, just get on with the job but include being surprised in your plans.
Next time you give instructions to staff, try thinking about simple rules for dealing with the completely unexpected. And remember that the unexpected can also be opportunities you want to take advantage of.
So I am laying in a ditch, in the rain, its two o’clock in the morning, I haven’t actually been to sleep yet and haven’t washed in a couple of days, there are practice mortar rounds being dropped around us, and someone’s yelling in my ear “SO WHAT?” I am miserable. The question is a good one though.
The question “so what?” is part of the Army’s way of teaching people to think. Every fact can have significance, but it needs to be uncovered. For instance when I was lying in that ditch, it wasn’t my wellbeing that was being enquired about. It was about the simulated mortars. Mortars don’t come into existence by themselves; they are carried by a mortar platoon. Mortar platoons don’t run around by themselves, they are part of a company (around 100 men) and they also have a maximum range (which I’ve forgotten but lets say 500m). The “so what” question makes me think along this chain of inference.
So Mortars? It means I have at least 100 enemy soldiers within 500M, and that probably not a good thing. In theory I need to move at least 500M away to get out of range of the mortars.
Well all too often I find that in my commercial dealings, the chain of inference just simply isn’t followed. Which means, to borrow a phrase, there’s information left on the table.
Customer X has cancelled his order.
His requirements are down or he is buying off a competitor.
There is an opportunity to help him improve his business or we have lost his loyalty and need to figure out why?
We need to meet and get an insight.
Lets give Salesman A a payrise
Salesman B is sure to find out
Salesman B will then demand a pay rise.
The pay rise will actually cost double what we thought and cause some tension.
Customer A is upset and is going to pull his business.
Customer A is stressed because his business is going badly and we aren’t making it easy.
Customer A is likely to go broke when his business fails.
Customer A is likely to be a bad debt in the immediate future.
Let’s not chase his business………
Next time a horrible fact is laid out your feet in a meeting, try saying”So what?” you may be surprised where it takes you.