Watching General Sir Nick Carter, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Chief of the Defence Staff, provide an update at one of the UK government’s daily briefings last week, it struck me that organizations might benefit from taking some learnings from the military to inform the next phase of their response to COVID-19.
Back in 2018, Sir Nick commented with some prescience, at a speech to the Royal United Services Institute: “We are in a period of change more widespread, rapid and profound than humanity has experienced outside of world war…we need to recreate the innovation and ingenuity in wartime if we are to succeed in this environment.”
As we look beyond today’s lock down and towards a new economic reality in the next phase, perhaps the military can provide a few ideas on how organizations can maintain the agility required to succeed.
MOVING ON FROM PHASE 1
Every organization is through the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, adjusting their businesses with unprecedented speed and agility. Yet even the biggest and best found it difficult to not only take the necessary actions to protect colleagues and customers, but also look beyond the immediate crisis to what they should be doing in parallel. While many set out to work simultaneously on crisis management, their business-as-usual agenda, and planning for the future, in reality the first of these was the overwhelming focus.
That’s hardly surprising; it was a survival necessity for many. For others, even if COVID-19 didn’t threaten their organization’s existence, they went onto a ‘war footing’ and anything that didn’t support crisis management was deferred. It was the corporate equivalent of the human survival instinct kicking in: peripheral vision narrowed, the brain shut down non-essential activities, and everything went into protecting the core.
The results were, in many cases, outstanding. What was achieved in six weeks of crisis management outstripped six months of typical business-as-usual delivery. As the immediate medical crisis hopefully recedes, however, and organizations look to the second phase of their response to the pandemic, they will need to find ways to sustain their new-found agility if they are not to default back to old ways of working.
IDEA 1: START WITH A PLAN AND PLAN TO ADAPT
Rapid, informed planning for the next phase is where the military would start. In a 1957 speech, United States’ President Dwight D Eisenhower, an ex-military person himself, observed: “Plans are useless but planning is everything.” Planning in the military is hard-wired into their DNA and with good reason.
In highly unpredictable environments, such as the next phase of COVID-19, rapidly creating a plan is critical no matter how short-lived it might be. Engaging a diverse group of people to develop a flexible yet robust set of scenarios on what might come next is the starting point. Subsequently empowering the wider organization to then adapt those plans in light of new information, will be more effective than a small senior group determining the way forward in isolation.
Diversity of input is a key feature in much of military planning. Sir Nick alluded to this last week with his reference to military personnel, reservists, industry experts, and civilians working together to develop solutions on the pandemic. For the private sector, tapping into new data, insights and experiences - internal and external - is easy to do in the age of Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Transparent co-creation has the added benefit of communicating the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of change much faster and more effectively than any centrally produced video or podcast.
As General George Patton is quoted as saying: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
IDEA 2: HARNESSING EXISTENTIAL RISK
Rapid, collaborative planning for the next phase of COVID-19 will bring home the point that the crisis for many organizations will shift in the next phase from a medical emergency to an economic one. With the UK Office of Budget Responsibility forecasting a potential 35 percent reduction in UK economic output for the second quarter of this year alone, it sets up a ‘new normal’ that is highly likely to be a harsh one economically.
In a previous article on Agility in the Moment, I highlighted how existential risk drives agility on the battlefield. The economic risk from the next phase of COVID-19 may unfortunately present a relevant parallel for corporates. The new environment will not be one anyone wants to be in, but it may nevertheless enable organizations to sustain the mental and physical agility seen in the last few weeks over a much longer period if approached in a structured way.
Military organizations might be known for ‘command and control’, but in reality they focus on a model of distributed leadership that is highly effective in a crisis: Mission Command.
IDEA 3: ‘MISSION COMMAND’ NOT COMMAND AND CONTROL
Military organizations might be known for ‘command and control’, but in reality they focus on a model of distributed leadership that is highly effective in a crisis: Mission Command. This, in essence, is where a team is given a clear ‘mission’ to achieve, they understand why it’s important, and are empowered to apply their own ideas and judgement on how to deliver the goal. Central to much of the UK and US military thinking, Mission Command is more closely connected to agile business philosophies than many people realize.
General Sir Nick Carter indirectly highlighted this in his update last week when he touched on local delegation: “…It’s that delegated sense, at that level, that works because it makes them much more responsive and much more flexible to local demand…with decentralization being so much the key to the way so much of this is done.”
Mission Command’s aim to empower agile and adaptive leaders is a powerful leadership model in highly unpredictable environments, but it may not be one organizations take in the months ahead. At times when multiple views need to be heard, the ‘hero model’ of leadership – where a single senior person or small group dominates – might be the default choice. As Matthew Syed said in his recent book, Rebel Ideas: “…dominant individuals tend to rise more rapidly during times of uncertainty…the authoritarian personality provides reassurance of the loss of control we collectively feel…precisely when one brain – even a dominant brain – is insufficient to solve the problem.”
The agility organizations have shown in the first phase of COVID-19 has been unprecedented in modern times. Changes that would have taken organizations months, if not years, were implemented in days and weeks. As firms look beyond lockdown towards a new challenging economic reality, there is a risk that old habits rapidly return or a small number of voices begin to dominate. Businesses might do well to take note that in the military’s experience, neither are likely to be optimal in fast changing environments.
Again, the words of General Sir Nick Carter back in 2018, are worth reflecting on as organizations look ahead to the next stage of their COVID-19 response: “I feel strongly that we must transform to become curious, challenging and constantly adaptable, as well as being prepared to test some of our core assumptions.”