An Agile Military

When we think of the military we probably don’t think of them as being agile. Their agility, however, may surprise you.  The goliath known as “The Army” may not appear to move quickly, but the smaller pieces of the whole need to move quickly in an ever-changing environment.  If you’re being dropped into a situation where things are constantly changing and what wasn’t a threat a second ago is now a threat, a really big threat, then you need to act quickly.  You need to take in the available information and make a decision based on the facts on hand.  The business world has nothing on the agility of the smaller pieces.

So what lessons can be learned?

MIT Sloan Review has an article “What the Military Can Teach Organizations About Agility” that seems to hit the proverbial nail on the head when it highlights three areas where the military can excel.

Leaders should focus on decisions only they can make. While this may make sense, it is easy to see in almost every organization where decisions are made by the wrong person.  In a firefight, you don’t get the opportunity to put together a working group to discuss the situation and work towards an amicable solution.  You need a leader that can make a split second decision … and live with it.

Most businesses don’t like the heresy of the following statement from the article:  “Leaders should be absolutely clear about what decisions only they can make and push all other decisions as far down the organization as possible.”  Yes, push all other decisions down the organization.  In an organization that is adverse to risk the tendency is to push the decision making up the organization and yet to be agile it needs to go down.  These two ideas – risk and agility – are polar opposites.  You cannot be agile if you do not accept the risk.  If you can’t accept risk you can’t be agile.

Most organizations, but in particular governments, proclaim that they want to be agile, but fall down by not accepting the risk, but forcing decisions up the corporate ladder instead of down.

Leaders should establish “commander’s intent.” The commander’s intent is essentially what needs to be done and why it needs to be done.  It does not prescribe how it needs to be done.  The idea is that the people closest to the problem are in the best position to solve the problem.  So, tell them the problem to solve and why that problem needs to be solved and they will come up with the best solution.

The purpose is to “empower agile and adaptive leaders“.  At least, that is what the ADRP-6.0 Mission Command manual talks about.  This manual is one of three manuals that describes how leaders are to implement “mission command”.  The manual talks about how the approach of command needs to be “comprehensive without being rigid”  and that “that some decisions must be made quickly and are better made at the point of action“. That describes many organizations.

So, the rules of engagement need to be comprehensive, without being rigid, knowing that decisions are sometimes best made by those on the front line.  If they are explained what and why then they are capable of making the right decision at the right time.  If the organization lets them.

Leaders should find a “directed telescope.”   A directed telescope is essentially eyes and ears that can feed the leader information about what is going on.  From a business perspective, it would be people who can honestly tell the leader about what is going on in the minds of their customers, how decisions are affecting customer satisfaction and even how the organization is perceived internally.

It’s important to understand that your product may be enthusiastically received by clients but if the business environment is toxic then the house of cards is going to fall.  The leader needs people who will tell them the unvarnished truth or at least the truth as perceived by that person.  These people may be more senior or more junior, part of the staff or even someone external who has internal connections.

These three lessons are key in being able to be agile and approach the agility that the military has during a mission.  Although many companies will say that they don’t need this agility, that is a sign that they don’t understand what agility means.  Lessons can be learned from even the most unlikely of places, you just need to look and accept.

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