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I recently posted a number of content pieces that explained ‘The Principles Of War’, a set of broad and overarching guidelines that acted as a filtering system for the operational and strategic efforts we conducted within the Military. In response to these posts many asked me to collate the information in a central source so that they might apply more reasonably to their businesses and teams.

There is no point in providing a set of principles, guidelines or considerations unless we build a context behind them that establishes relevance.  This is my shot at doing that for the Principles of War in a corporate context.

The Principles of War are a set of guiding principles that act as considerations for military planning and strategy.  It has become apparent that there is some utility in using them in the corporate environment.  In this article, we look at the analysis and interpretation of the principles with that concept in mind.

Simply put, the principles exist to help frame ‘how’ to think and not ‘what’ to think.  This means that we are free to explore whatever is needed to solve the problem.  However, we must be careful to balance our priorities and resources to enable the best possible outcome.

These are the principles in order but not in importance.  Each plan or initiative will see a different prioritisation of each of these principles in order to achieve a different effects or outcome.

  1. The selection and maintenance of the aim
  2. Concentration of force
  3. Cooperation
  4. Economy of effort
  5. Security
  6. Offensive action
  7. Surprise
  8. Flexibility
  9. Sustainment
  10. Maintenance of morale

The situation will see each principle being utilised differently and should be weighted depending on the circumstances, what needs to be achieved and the priorities set out by the planner.  As an example, when developing a concept for client focused service (aim) we may need to bring in another organisation to cover an identified need (cooperation) which we could only build ourselves at a much higher cost (economy of effort).  This joint venture may necessitate an exchange of restricted information (security) to ensure the team is established, trust is built, and we can be demonstrating our ability to adjust to our client’s needs (flexibility/aim).

For this scenario, the client focused service has primacy.  It may look something like this.

Note – ‘the doctrine’ comments are excerpts from Land Warfare Doctrine 1 – The Fundamentals of Land Power 2014 – The Principles of War

THE SELECTION AND MAINTENANCE OF THE AIM

The doctrine – Once the aim has been decided, all effort must continually be directed towards its attainment so long as this is possible, and every plan or action must be tested by its bearing on the aim.

“ Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future ” – Walt Disney

In broad terms, it means to keep the object/ end in mind at every level of the operation. The creation of the aim (end state/ outcome) takes time, energy, and some serious thought. This is true for military and corporate action.

When selecting and maintaining the aim:

  1. Ensure it aligns with your values
  2. Communicate it simply and effectively to those involved
  3. Reinforce the aim at all levels
  4. Resist the urge to ad hoc stray from the aim
  5. Maintain open lines of communication with key stakeholders
  6. Test any changes against its impact on the overall aim
  7. Bring subject matter experts in for objectivity

Know where you are heading before you start. It allows you and your team to align to a common outcome and make decisions as well as maintain momentum in your absence. From CEO to a jobseeker, selecting and maintaining your aim provides the purpose to make sound decisions.

CONCENTRATION OF FORCE

The doctrine – Concentration of force is the ability to apply decisive military force at the right place, at the right time and in such a way as to achieve a decisive result.

“ The talent of the strategist is to identify the decisive point and to concentrate everything on it, removing forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives. ” – Carl von Clausewitz

To be successful we need to be able to concentrate our capabilities, at the appropriate time and place, to achieve success. This means knowing what we have, what it can do and where it is going to have the most impact.  Then doing it.  This principle is about be deliberate and even more so, decisive.

In a corporate context this would mean:

  1. Having the funding to support a new project or capitalise on an opportunity
  2. Aligning staff, capital and messaging at a key point to achieve and outcome
  3. Defining areas that are irrelevant for expenditure
  4. Having a surge capability to reinforce success
  5. Knowing the strategy and communicating key locations and times for action
  6. Making decisions within the time to be effective
  7. Building alignment, momentum and energy to decisive points in the plan

We cannot spend everything on anything.  Prioritise those actions that will have the highest impact and align to the strategy.  Then build up the required resources, staff and capital to seize an opportunity.  This is a deliberate and defined process.

COOPERATION

The doctrine – Cooperation within joint combined arms interagency teams, allies and coalition partners is vital for success. Only in this way can the resources and energies of each be harnessed so as to achieve success.

” It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. ” – Charles Darwin

Vital to success is the ability to bring together multiple agencies to achieve an overall effect.  What this means in a practical sense is to build teams that cover each other’s gaps.  We cannot know or be great at everything, so we join forces with others to create something better than our own individual capability.

What cooperation looks like:

  1. Admitting that you are not strong in an area
  2. Aligning with a team that is
  3. Leaving your ego at the door and being prepared to be led depending on the priority
  4. Acknowledging a greater purpose
  5. Sharing information freely and in a timely fashion
  6. Synchronising the efforts in space, time, and priority to create the best impact
  7. Putting the team needs first
  8. Protecting each other and representing them in areas where they don’t represent themselves

Combining efforts takes a great deal of trust, authenticity, and respect.  It may be for a short period or an enduring strategic partnership.  The vulnerabilities of your joined team must be protected at all costs.

ECONOMY OF EFFORT

The doctrine – Economy of effort is the prudent allocation and application of resources to achieve the desired results.

“ The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. ” – Bill Gates

Economy of effort.  This principle deals with ‘playing smart’ and making the full use of available resources. It is in this space that we create a balance in priorities and what we can realistically achieve and sustain.  Appropriate allocation must be nested with the strategy as they are finite.  Priority allocation must go to the main effort that and supporting efforts will be created to enable it.

In a corporate setting this might look like:

  1. Priority resourcing to finding new opportunities
  2. Supporting effort in retaining and consolidated current projects
  3. Reserve resources segregated for identified contingencies

A changing environment requires adaptability and if the main effort/ supporting efforts evolve then the priority of resourcing will change.  At all times maintaining your economy of effort must be nested with the other principles like sustainment.  Appropriate allocation of effort can mean the difference between success and failure.

SECURITY

The doctrine – Security is concerned with measures taken by a command to protect itself from espionage, sabotage, subversion, observation, or surprise. It is of basic concern during any campaign or operation. Security is required to operate effectively with minimal interference from the enemy.

“ Protection and security are only valuable if they do not cramp life excessively. ” – Carl Jung

To be able to continue to operate and/ or obtain opportunities we must first ensure that our own capabilities are as secure as required by the strategy.  Now in times of need, sacrificing security for speed may be that strategy but it must be a planned, deliberate, and precise decision.  Offensive strategies can also be a method of security as we stay mobile, maintain momentum and aren’t targetable.

In a corporate context, this could mean:

  1. Securing your information, strategies and plans from your competitors
  2. Ensuring you have consolidated resources to mitigate uncertainties
  3. Future proof your employee relevance by developing them
  4. Maintain quick and deliberate decision-making cycles to stay ahead of the competition
  5. Securing financial viability by maintaining cashflow
  6. Diversifying to create redundancy to secure operational viability
  7. Mitigating priority risks to reduce critical events

Security of our businesses in physical, financial, strategic, operational and resource-based decisions is important to enable us to operate effectively with minimal disturbance.  This principle allows us to analyse risk and mitigate it before crisis occurs.

OFFENSIVE ACTION

The doctrine – Military forces take offensive action to gain and retain the initiative. This has often taken the form of building momentum and fueling it to snowball the opposition. In most circumstances, such action is essential to the achievement of victory.

“ A little deed done very well is better than a mighty plan kept on paper, undone. Wishes don’t change the world; it’s actions that do this business! ” – Israelmore Ayivor

We need an offensive action (read, a bias for action in this case) to either regain or maintain initiative, or in a corporate context; maintain your competitive advantage, be first to market, launch on a project or create and seize opportunities.  This action must be deliberate and decisive and must be driven towards achieving the established aim.

To effectively implement offensive actions, we should:

  1. Empower people who have a bias for action (as long the strategy supports it)
  2. Consolidate and make use of adequate resources
  3. Ensure the action is sustainable to the end
  4. Be linked to other key stakeholders to support
  5. Use an element of surprise
  6. Make effective use of available resources
  7. Be deliberate and decisive
  8. Be oriented towards the overarching aim or strategy
  9. Be balanced with security of our own capabilities

In a military context this may necessitate combat however, it can also be the use of information actions and achieving influence as well.  Overall, it is important to understand the importance of having a bias for action as it creates momentum, speed in decision making and advantage over your competitors.  This bias will ultimately allow you to create opportunities not just be reactive to them.

SURPRISE

The doctrine – Surprise can produce results out of all proportion to the effort expended and is closely related to security.

“ In conflict, straightforward actions generally lead to engagement, surprising actions generally lead to victory ” – Sun Tzu

In a military term this might require deception or simply being able to disperse and concentrate rapidly, concealing your activity, appearing weak when you are strong etc.  The idea is to be where you are unexpected or where you are expected at a time when you are not, in forces that weren’t planned for.  In a corporate context, this may mean the release of a new strategy, software, market entry, product release in a time and manner that is not expected so that your competitors can’t mimic or get the inside track.

To achieve successful surprise:

  1. Be where you are not expected to be
  2. Appear vulnerable when you are in fact strong
  3. Appear strong when you are weak
  4. Approach markets from different methods
  5. Create strong allies who enable you to scale and disperse rapidly
  6. Know your environment in detail
  7. Understand the importance of timing
  8. Have a strategy and a plan
  9. Show the minimum amount of activity in an area people are expecting so that they don’t know what your actual aim is. It is called a feint.
  10. Be adaptable and ready to respond to your changing environment

This list is ultimately endless but, in a nutshell, utilising surprise not only keeps you and your team excited about new plans, it also enables you to capitalise on opportunities before others know you are even looking at them.

FLEXIBILITY

The doctrine – Flexibility is the capacity to adapt plans to take account of unforeseen circumstances to ensure success in the face of friction, unexpected resistance, or setbacks, or to capitalise on unexpected opportunities.

“ It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. ”  – Charles Darwin

This is your ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment (your AQ).  I would also include your resilience to setbacks, ability to deal with friction, chaos and complexity and to make decisions in uncertainty.  The aim of flexibility is to maintain dynamic decision making across multiple lines of operation and still be synchronised.

To build flexibility:

  1. Identify and communicate the overall aim
  2. Understand your environment
  3. Build a redundancy or reserve of resources
  4. Empower decision making at the lowest level
  5. Simplify communication
  6. Provide realistic and relevant boundaries
  7. Create an environment of innovation
  8. Absorb risk, friction and anxiety for your team

Giving your team and organisation the confidence and capability to accept risk and seize opportunities is a deliberate process.  As leaders we have a responsibility to create the environment and set the conditions for success.  Build and train your teams to be able to understand intent and feel confident to take risks knowing that you have their backs.  Ultimately, gaps and opportunities will be found by them.  If they feel confident and capable, you will be able to pivot early and often.

SUSTAINMENT

The doctrine – Sustainment refers to the support arrangements necessary to implement strategies and operational plans.

“ You won’t find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics ”  – General Dwight. D. Eisenhower

The new executive with the grand ideas will often forget about the sustainability of a project or strategy.  Logistics and sustainability don’t just happen and can underpin an entire campaign.

Deliberate planning of time and resources for both offensive and defensive strategies should be a priority if you want an enduring impact.  The sustainability or logistical elements of are also those things that are easily targetable by a competitor who can bring more support to the game.

To be sustainable we must:

  1. Accurately plan the requirements of our missions
  2. Have a redundancy
  3. Identify the needs and requirements of our teams
  4. Be prepared to do more with less (should not be the ‘go to’ move)
  5. Be creative and use initiative
  6. Allocate resources to those areas with the greatest impact
  7. Prioritise resources (especially time and energy)
  8. Have a strategy and a plan

Sustainability of our initiatives is the life blood of enduring impact.  In change management, fatigue and obstruction are the result.  In projects, loss of capability occurs or a failure to meet scope.

Be clinical and decisive in your application of resources.

MAINTENANCE OF MORALE

The doctrine – Morale is an essential element of combat power. High morale engenders courage, energy, cohesion, endurance, steadfastness, determination and a bold, offensive spirit.

“ An army’s effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is worth more than any of the other factors combined. ” – Napoleon Bonaparte

For those that know and understand the power of good morale, it is understood that this can be the power that turns the tide and make the unachievable…achievable.

Teams with high morale based on being highly trained, determined people with a shared value set, cohesion and trust will outperform even the best ‘qualified’ teams (on paper) with low morale. This is the secret force multiplier that changes the game.

Morale is built on:

  1. Trust
  2. Shared experience
  3. Open communication
  4. Success (short/long term) and performance
  5. Influential leadership (at all levels)
  6. A shared purpose and identity
  7. Commitment and conviction to succeed
  8. A genuine and authentic care for each other and the team
  9. Culture and a feeling of belonging
  10. A willingness to put the team above yourself

If you have worked in a team with high morale, you will understand the power and addictive nature of it. You feel indestructible and associate the impossible as the possible. However, it takes work and commitment to being a part of something bigger than yourself.

SUMMARY

The principles of war have been developed over the years as a set of factors and considerations for successful planning and implementation of strategy.

Depending on the environment, the adversary, experience, available time and any other amount of identifiable conditions will determine what weight is applied to each principle. We cannot achieve every principle perfectly every time. Sometimes we may have to sacrifice one to achieve another as a priority of circumstance. That means that careful consideration and analysis must be applied to each strategy and plan. The consideration itself will lead to a better plan than had it not been done at all.

Ultimately, having a set of principles that can help aid in planning and decision making helps you to create better outcomes.  The principles of war are one such set.

The best leaders and project managers I have seen are those that can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information quickly, so time is not wasted unnecessarily. It is those individuals, whom through their line of questioning, determine from another person – ‘what is the thing you want?’.

Do not confuse what I am about to say as an excuse for poor stakeholder engagement, or buy-in. This article is geared towards organisations and teams which operate in high tempo environments, experience stressful positions and require streamlined communication in order to survive.

My previous role within the military was one characterised by high and low tempo periods. Due to the nature of high tempo periods, time becomes short to make accurate and well-reasoned decisions often concerning the allocation of resources, and judgements about personnel safety. But what struck me as odd was a phenomenon I can only describe as ‘rambling’. As people got stressed, they felt the need to justify their question prior to asking it. But why would you be saying more when there is significantly less time? – it doesn’t make sense. It only creates more stress. It took me a long time to realise what was happening, but after having reasonable time to deliberate on the phenomenon I think I have figured it out!

As people become stressed they internally perceive the stakes to be higher. In turn, people tend to transition into a self-protection mode (either physically or professionally) – this is seen particularly in the military where individuals are assessed routinely on their technical skills and their ability to operate complex/complicated systems under trying circumstances. As a result, people rearrange the way they ask their questions in such a way that they begin with the justification before asking the question. You might have experienced this before when someone opens with a massive preamble about a problem and all they really wanted was to ask for something simple like a signature for something you already knew about. This is the same issue on a graduating scale.

On one such occasion I was helping run operations in a large scale military exercise. A person (whom I have the highest respect for, particularly their technical ability and their integrity) was ten minutes into a ramble and unbeknownst to them – time from my perspective was very short! I had to ask directly:

“What is the thing that you want?”

They looked at me somewhat shocked as to the bluntness of the question, but I continued,

“If you had to describe in 50 words or less how I can help you best, what would you say? As I have to leave for a meeting.”

Their reply – priceless.

“Can I borrow your computer for a couple of minutes.”

My reply – and a quick pat on the back later.

“No worries”.

Our relationship since that time has never been better. There was no massive social blunder, no awkwardness, just professional courtesy. Since that time, it dawned on me – how many hours of other people’s busy lives I have needlessly wasted by asking questions in the wrong way.

In certain circles within Defence, a technique called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is utilised. It directly addresses this problem – it formally requires the individual to rearrange their correspondence in such a way that the question is the first line read on the document, brief or presentation.

BLUF Example:

I seek approval to move item X to area Y?

Justification:

  1. The item needs to be serviced
  2. Replacement items are inbound
  3. The item will no longer work with system Z which will be introduced in June.
  4. Etc.

The result is the decision maker is queued towards the problem early, and can actively consider the justifications without getting lost in the data.

Please note, when I refer to direct questioning, I am not implying one has to be rude, or unapproachable – quite the opposite. I am suggesting that a strong team with well rehearsed lines of communication should be able to circumvent the need to talk unnecessarily in times of extremis, or high stress. Team members should be confident in asking questions directly, and leaders should be comfortable in their team members’ abilities. Those teams that can achieve this level of operational ability are routinely the same that outperform their competitors.

Now I am not suggesting that Nirvana can be reached in terms of perfect communication, but I would suggest that there are certain things we can do at our level to improve our communication when it counts the most:

  1. Think before you communicate – What is it you want? Be prepared to explain why if they ask. Rehearse your question and answer.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask the direct question – ‘What is the thing you need from me?’ or ‘Please describe exactly what you see me doing to help you?’
  3. Train your personnel – Encourage people to be confident enough to ask direct questioning.
  4. As a leader, be approachable and explain your intent – If you have to ask someone to be direct with their question also explain that you are not being rude and you appreciate direct questioning as it helps you problem solve more efficiently.
  5. Reinforce the correct behavior.

In my own experience, I have seen this work very effectively. Not just within Defence but across a multitude of different agencies. By cutting out the white noise I think I have significantly improved the way in which I communicate. My team members have also adopted the same line of questioning, to a point where it has become habitual. Give it a try!

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

When I joined the Australian Army as an Officer Cadet in 2006, my goals were to:

  • Lead soldiers into battle,
  • Positively influence their lives, and
  • Make a positive difference in the world.

Throughout my time in the military my understanding of successful leadership techniques has dramatically evolved from a rigid, authoritative and top-down approach to a more inclusive, group-influenced and adaptive approach. But more importantly my approach to problem solving and decision making is what has potentially evolved the most, and that is what I would like to discuss in this paper.

I once read a book by a late Chinese militarist and philosopher named Sun Tzu, his most famous work being ‘The Art of War’, written to provide context to war and conflict. Originally written to consolidate some of the constants that define war, a large number of its themes can be applied to modern environments, organisations and situations. I found that one particular selection of his quotes stood apart from the rest:

“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

Sun Tzu

This collection of references has colloquially been referred to, or summarised, as Sun Tzu’s ‘flow like water’ and is often loosely referred to in conversations everywhere. What is of particular relevance from this quote is its application to problem solving.

Throughout my life, I have observed leaders, managers and decision makers preach and assess others against throw away terms such as: flexibility, adaptability, initiative and effectiveness, however I personally do not believe that many individuals fully reach their potential in these areas, not through a lack of trying, but through a lack of awareness.

BYPASS OBSTRUCTIONISM

To apply Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘flow like water’ to problem solving we must first apply its relevance to our modern context by drawing a number of constants. Suppose, that an obstacle, hurdle or obstruction (or worse yet an obstructionist!) is likened to a rock within a flowing stream. Suppose further, that water (under Sun Tzu’s concept) is ever moving, constantly changing and reshaping, and is heading in one direction.

Every one of us has encountered a number of obstructionists throughout our own experiences. Characterised as that one irritable individual who has an inability to think laterally, who begins group conversations with ‘that can’t be done’, and lives happily in a world self-defined by boundaries and corporate governance. In the past I have likened such individuals to the’ Vogon Constructor Fleet’ from Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy;’ an officious group of aliens responsible for maintaining the bureaucratic processes of the universe, with no regard for innovation. Please note, when I refer to obstructionists, I do not refer to bureaucratic styled professions, in fact, adaptive thinkers within such job categories have the ability to transform whole organisations by streamlining processes and cutting red tape. I refer primarily to individuals who have turned to the dark side. A team of obstructionists can often lead to toxic relationships, and without fail will hamper an organisation or team’s competitive edge, particularly when delivering projects.

Leaders must be able to identify obstructionists, acknowledge their concerns, and then bypass them in order to ensure that momentum is maintained on overall task/project success. Many a leader has become unstuck by becoming bogged down in obstructionist detail, whilst losing oversight of the original task and purpose. In the Army a term known as ‘marking and bypassing’ is used to explain a procedure by which a team identifies an issue on the battlefield which is outside their scope and capability. This team will then promptly mark it and pass the responsibility to other more specialist teams in depth as opposed to dwelling on the problem. This term can also be applied to explain the process of identifying an obstacle in the workplace, marking its existence and then bypassing it in order to complete the task in time, on budget, and within specifications.

DEVELOP A POSITIVE CULTURE WHICH REJECTS OBSTRUCTIONISM

It is one thing to be able to apply Sun Tzu’s, ‘flow like water’ to your own practices, but how does one influence a team to apply the same forward-leaning, positive approach to problem solving?

Employ the right type of people

If organisations intend to recruit individuals long-term then employ those people that are right for ‘a task’, not necessarily ‘the task’. This meaning, that organisations need to ensure the longevity of their investment (their people), and ensure that when Project A is finalised, the same person might be able to easily transition onto Project B which might have an entirely different scope, stakeholder contribution and design. This is the true meaning of ‘flexibility’ when referring to planning. In practical terms, this might mean that organisations make an assessment on an individual’s potential as opposed to their qualifications. This might also mean that individuals are assessed on whether they are likely to fit the culture of the organisation based on personality, approach to problem solving, and their work ethic. If you have obstructionists in your team, find a way to negate their effects, re-train them, re-assign them (to a better suited role), or worse case remove them completely.

Publicly encourage adaptive and ‘out of the box’ thinking

Leaders must always encourage adaptive thinking by individuals who demonstrate initiative. Ideas and concepts from staff are simply that, nothing more, nothing less – it’s not personal! Furthermore, leaders must be able to identify those contributions that are obstructionist versus those that are complimentary or constructive to the planning process. Positive contributions must be acknowledged publicly to the entire team, and similarly, obstructionism must be identified and as such bypassed or negated. Just remember, you do not need to use everyone’s contributions, but you do need to acknowledge its existence and intent.

Leaders must take risks and accept responsibility

Leaders must apply the principle of ‘risk versus return’. A team which consistently adapts, evolves and adjusts to changing conditions needs to take risks in order to maintain pace with competitors. This ultimately results in higher risk for mistakes. Good leaders must accept the full responsibility for their team’s mistakes, and in return they will receive greater followership and continued involvement from their team. Remember, never blame your team! Also, a successful leader does not blame other areas or departments in order to shift blame and make a common enemy. The most successful leaders I have seen have demonstrated humility and have gone to extensive efforts to provide context as to why other teams within their organisation have made their decisions. Word travels quickly, and this positive gesture may be returned to your team at a later date.

Train your team to be able to plan in the absence of information

Successful and adaptive teams are those that get ahead of the game. They demonstrate the ability to plan in the absence of all the information. They make experience based assumptions that allow them to get to further stages of planning. These assumptions are then either confirmed or denied concurrently, or in subsequent stages of planning. In any case, the team maintains its momentum in the correct general direction. Obstructionists by their nature, feel extremely uncomfortable planning without all the information, and can be seen using it as a means to hamper/halt the planning process – do not let this happen!

In summary, do not be a Vogon! If people provide you with constructive ideas, first think how that information may practicably be utilised to better your cause, or your organisation. If you identify obstructionists, mark and bypass them, to find another way to win, and do not get caught in their detail. Remember, there is always a way to reach an end-state, it might just take a zig-zag path around multiple obstacles to reach it.

Flow like water – Avoiding obstructionism

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.