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Five Ways to Ensure Organizational Success

March 22, 2020
Businesses that wish to thrive amid adversity should study the U.S. military, which has no equal in regard to operational and performance improvements.

Successful organizations meet their goals in the face of adversity —from the competition, changing consumer preferences, talent shortages, supply-chain disruptions, political upheaval, or even weather events. The model for successful organizations is the U.S. military, because of its ability to train people, leaders, and sub-organizations to learn, train, rehearse, execute, and improve its operations.

Train constantly. Any new employee, or soldier or sailor, starts his career with extensive training. The uniqueness of the U.S. military begins to appear about four years into a military person’s career. At the four-year mark, military personnel become junior managers, non-commissioned officers (NCO) who lead small teams to carry out daily operations. To assume their new leadership duties, military personnel attend formal schools and informal professional development to ensure success in leadership roles.

Outside the military, it is common for individual contributors to move into a management role without any dedicated leadership training. U.S. military leaders train throughout their career. A CEO’s last training session may have occurred a decade ago. A general officer would have had his last training a few months ago.

Training is both the foundation for excellence and the foundation for continued excellence.

Combine intelligence with action. Most business organizations understand their competition in various forms and degrees. U.S. military personnel, at all levels, understand and incorporate the competition’s activities into their operations. They combine intelligence of enemy actions with military goals and operational plans to mitigate enemy strengths, to ensure success. Civilian organizations determine strategies based on past results, and then glance at what their competition is doing.

Pairing intelligence and operations — an ongoing, respectful evaluation of the competition to improve (not abandon) goals — is unique to the U.S. military.  All companies, no matter their competition or industry, can emulate the U.S. military’s process.

Define success clearly. How does a leader define success? The U.S. military uses the “Commander’s Intent,” the simple guidance given to all military personnel on the purpose of operation, which also establishes the terms for “success.” Commander’s Intent allows for and encourages initiative when a plan must be changed because of the competition. Defining what success is allows for individual initiative, so a plan can be adapted “on-the-fly” to ensure success.

Constantly improve core functions. The U.S. military consistently trains individuals, leaders, and units to carry out ever-more difficult missions. The focus of the training is constant development and improvement of core functions that support those missions. Marksmanship, a military core function, has been transformed over the past decade with new technology, training, and combat-tested principles. How much transformation do you notice in the manufacturing, retail, or service businesses you know? When you are dissatisfied with performance, recognize that individuals may be giving their best effort but they have not been challenged, developed, or tested to improve their core functions.

Importantly, the core measures of performance do not change. If new procedures do not allow a marksman to hit the target faster and with greater accuracy, then the established procedure is maintained. The constant improvement of core functions or performance is a standard, not an exceptional, approach.

Constantly adapt, for self-transformation.  The U.S. military’s ability to question and transform its behavior through the “lessons learned” process, professional publications, and leader development has no equal in business, government, or any other organization. In the military, in training or in combat, once an operation of any size is completed the entire organization pauses in a formal process to ask, “How did we do, and how can we do better?” The U.S. Army’s intellectual upheaval during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan centered on the pros and cons of counterinsurgency as a warfighting doctrine. This was extraordinary, because it showed an institution trying to adapt and understand better how to fight while it was fighting. Whether this was fast or thorough enough, or if it could have done at all, credit the Army for having the inquiry.  Contrast this with IBM’s struggles to adapt to the operating system power of Microsoft and the expanding influence of personal computing.

The U.S. military is an unlikely challenger of the status quo. It embraces the concepts that make it great, while acknowledging that internal challenge, discussions, and dissent are the norms of an organization that must constantly transform to remain great.

Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of active duty and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units, and 15 years' teaching experience as an adjunct Professor of Marketing. He is the author of “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” Contact him at [email protected], or visit www.CombatToCorporate.com