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Business lessons from the British Army

Military commanders have had to change the way they operate in the field. Corporate executives should take note.

Much has been written about parallels between the military and corporations. But what insights are most relevant for leaders in an age of agile organisations? In an interview for McKinsey Quarterly, Rob Theunissen spoke to Justin Maciejewski, the director general of the National Army Museum and a former brigadier in the British Army. The interview reveals the following nine lessons for leaders.

  1. Empower your team to make rapid decisions. In the late 1980s the British Army moved away from a top-down culture and redesigned the way decisions were made and how officers were empowered. A new system was introduced: Mission Command, which would now be called agile, was about giving people the tools to make rapid decisions in order to disrupt the enemy.
  2. Standardise your processes. Mission planning lies at the heart of military operations, and the army came up with seven questions, which everyone uses across the organisation. Once you standardise, you create organisations in which people feel confident to make decisions and where trust grows because people know what others are going to do even before they come up with an idea.
  3. Focus on purpose rather than tasks. Commanders used to write down what they wanted people to do in a precise way. People were given tasks that fit within an overall operation or mission. A mission today is not a set of tasks because, in a dynamic situation, people should revert to the purpose rather than the task. Situations change.In business, people often express annual targets as percentages of growth or the amount of cost they have to cut without any real articulation of how that feeds into the overall success of the business – which is disempowering. Instead, say: “We need you to take out this much cost because we want to put that into R&D for the next model that’s going to win us a new market.”
  4. Give people space to fail. Let people spread their wings as leaders, and trust them. Occasionally, they’ll get it wrong. Don’t crucify them. If you do, they will be afraid to take action, and then you’ll have to micromanage them. Watching people grow as leaders is fulfilling. As new leaders gain more experience, you can supervise less.
  5. Select the right talent. Talent selection is crucial, yet few businesses have the rigorous talent selection found in the army. Often, it’s based on a good year’s performance, then you leap into the next job rather than really understanding what potential looks like versus performance. Don’t be too quick to bring in talent rather than develop it internally. Endlessly looking outside creates a transactional approach to people.
  6. Build strong teams. People must complement each other. If you have an extrovert leader who may not be very good on detail, make sure they’ve got a second in command who’s good at it. Don’t let people pick their own teams, because what you then create is an inner circle. When you have an inner circle around the boss, you just create a sense of disempowerment for everyone who’s not in the magic circle of power.
  7. Learn without blaming. In the army, when a mistake is made, you don’t hang someone out to dry. Sometimes mistakes are made in battle and people get killed. If you crucify people when a mistake is made in battle, they’ll freeze with fear the next time they’re facing the enemy, and the consequences of that are far worse. Learning without blaming is at the heart of removing fear from that process.
  8. Live your values and standards. The army doesn’t have just values; it has values and standards. And the reason is because it wants to help people understand what those values look like in action. Values can be a hugely powerful thing when they’re shared across an organisation, but you’ve got to invest in them. You can’t just put them on a notice board or up in an office and have that be the end of the job.
  9. Nurture and develop talent. The army is mindful of its people because it can’t hire them in at any level. You can’t hire in someone to be a great general on day one. The manpower has to be grown from within. A lot of businesses rely on the fact that they can just hire and fire people. The new approach to becoming agile in business is based on building small, tight-knit squads. That requires trust, and trust takes time.

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Source Article: How The British Army’s Operations Went Agile
Author(s): Rob Theunissen
Publisher: McKinsey Insights