Leadership & Planning Lessons from the Army
Earlier today I attended a round-table session to discuss what lessons & insights the army’s approach to planning might offer commercial and government organisations. The discussion prompted me to think about some of my experiences & learnings over the years – pulling together some my thoughts in this blog post.
I have always admired the army’s approach and dedication to developing leaders – its baked into their DNA. From day 1 recruits are equipped with leadership skills and are given the opportunities to put these skills into practice – its something that most commercial organisations miss; focusing their leadership development efforts/budgets on the top couple of tiers of the organizational chart.
Lesson 1: Leadership is a verb and happens at all levels of an organisation – distribute your efforts/budgets across all levels of the organisation and focus on building/maintaining a leadership pipeline.
Everyone is empowered to exercise judgment & act – within some clear strategic intent and operational boundaries – to ensure the mission continues in the event of loss of key personnel, communications breakdown or other adverse event. Contrary to conventional wisdom the army does encourage soldiers to appropriately challenge the status quo. Too often corporations create decision-making vortexes reliant on individuals; creating bottlenecks that stall or paralyze decision-making. All soldiers understand the sometimes hidden cost of not making a decision in a timely manner.
Lesson 2: Empower people to act all levels of the organisation and eliminate decision-making bottlenecks – actively driving the devolution of decision-making rights. Make it safe for people to make decision provided they are based on robust judgment/thinking and within the parameters of the strategic intent and operational boundaries.
Everyone within the army has a clear career pathway – outlining what is required to progress through the ranks – and progress is clearly measured at every step of the way. The right support structures and processes are in place to help everyone meet their growth ambitions & targets. The army is known for its Military Rank hierarchy, which denotes level of qualification, experience and competency – making it simple to see where everyone is in their progression.
Lesson 3: Career pathways and clear measures of progress are essential. Qualifications, certifications and accreditations are important. In my experience it’s the people who don’t have any that try to downplay their relevance. Standardised mechanisms for measuring people’s progression and development are vital to ongoing sustainable growth of both individuals and the organisation.
Different armies use slightly different planning processes however they are all modeled off a common base of tried & tested frameworks and processes. This allows different armies to work together in overseas deployments and missions. The process includes not just the development of plan but scenario planning as well as active feedback from the field, based on the execution of the plan, to improve the next round of planning. Too many organisations adopt the ‘fire and forget’ planning approach – missing out on the opportunity to improve their planning capabilities over time.
Lesson 4: Use proven planning processes and ensure you take your plans through all stages of the planning process – including scenario planning/prototyping/pilots as well as lesson learnt for the next planning round. Maintain active dialogue with the front-line to adapt your plans and improve your planning processes.
People in the planning functions are cycled out of the planning function into field operations on a regular basis. This gives them a much clear context within which to plan and an appreciation of the on the ground reality of missions/deployments.
Lesson 5: Cycle people involved in planning activities out into the field. Too often corporate planning functions get stuck in ‘ivory towers’ producing disjointed plans & strategies.
I know people hold varying views on the army/military - in my experience these are often skewed by incorrect conventional wisdom and misunderstanding - however I think you’d be pressed to find too many other organisations that have invested so much into growing their leadership and planning capabilities. Most modern business planning methods and tools find their roots in the army/military. Commercial and government organisations can definitely learn some crucial lessons from the army.