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The Military Needs To Change; Business Does Too

Jul 13, 2021

Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy recently wrote an excellent piece for Foreign Affairs warning that the American military is falling behind adversaries such as China and Russia and offering a compelling outline for “How to Transform the Pentagon for a Competitive Era.”

Many companies now find themselves in an era of unprecedented competition as well, and as I read Flournoy’s article, I was struck by how much of her advice was as spot-on for business as it was for the armed forces. That’s not surprising; the military, after all, is an enormous, hierarchical bureaucracy – just like most multinationals. As such, it faces similar challenges:

“Driving change in large bureaucratic organizations is notoriously hard … The prevailing bureaucratic culture remains risk averse: avoid making mistakes, don’t rock the boat, stick to existing ways of doing business. In addition, top officials face a wide array of urgent challenges …”

Sound familiar?

If it does, so should the cutthroat new world Flournoy describes – a world in which size alone no longer matters, a world in which all advantages are temporary, a world in which even new technologies can be quickly copied and deployed by sophisticated rivals.

What is required to gain the upper hand in a world like this, she argues, is not just new technologies, but an entirely new conceptualization of how to compete and win.

 

Going Beyond Technological Innovation

“Conceptual innovation needs four key ingredients: a mandate from the top to break with current doctrine, a genuine competition of ideas, an approach that engages as many of the brightest people with as diverse a range of experiences and perspectives as possible, and a willingness to check rank and position at the door, to allow for the possibility that the best ideas may come from the most junior participants,” Flournoy writes.

That sounds a lot like red teaming – which is hardly surprising, since red teaming was developed by the U.S. military.

Red teaming is designed to not only challenge an organization’s assumptions and stress-test its strategies, but also to surface diverse solutions from across the organization and ensure that the best idea wins, regardless of where it originates from in the org chart.

In fact, in one of the first comprehensive red teaming exercises conducted by the U.S. Army on the national military strategy, the best ideas came from a twenty-something-year-old lieutenant – the youngest, most junior person in a group that also included captains, majors, colonels, and generals. The anonymized nature of the red teaming tools used during that analysis allowed the entire group to consider each idea without reference to person who proposed it. The most senior officer in that exercise acknowledged that he would have dismissed the young lieutenant’s ideas if he had known their source. He also admitted that none of his ideas had been deemed worthy by the rest of the red team to advance to the final round of review.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an important role for senior leaders to play.

“The secretary of defense should also establish a forum of senior leaders to review and debate alternative proposals, in order to identify gaps and to support the development of the most promising concepts,” Flournoy continues. “Such support must involve considerably more analysis, war-gaming, and experimentation from the field. Creating a virtuous cycle – from concept development to war-gaming to experimentation – would help turn promising ideas into usable new concepts.”

Again, that sounds a lot like red teaming. But Flournoy acknowledges that this is only half the battle – offering her own take on Peter Drucker’s purported observation about the eating habits of culture.



Culture Wars

“Strategy can be changed with the stroke of a pen, but changing culture means altering how human beings actually behave, which is considerably more complicated. It requires a clearly communicated vision from the top, sustained leadership engagement, buy-in from managers at multiple levels, revised incentives to realign behavior toward desired outcomes, and a greater emphasis on holding people accountable for results.”

That sounds like page from Alan Mulally’s playbook. These are exactly the same levers he pulled to save first Boeing, then Ford.

He started by creating a clear and compelling vision for each company, communicated that effectively from the C-suite to the factory floor, required his managers to walk the talk, changed the incentive scheme to reward working together and drive employees toward common goals, and managed it all with his vaunted Business Plan Review, or BPR Process – an elegantly simple system designed to foster teamwork, create transparency, and drive accountability.

This approach not only saved those two companies from bankruptcy but put them back at the forefront of their respective industries.

Flournoy believes her advice will put America back on top as well.

 

Originally published on Forbes.

Follow Bryce on Twitter and LinkedIn

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