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Army Must Use Business Skills to Adap

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The challenges of staffing, training, establishing a future force capabilities mix and determining a strategic direction are a few of the many areas where the U.S. Army faces a multitude of options with no clear, precise answer. A study of some premier business practices can make it easier for the Army to successfully meet its challenges today and tomorrow.

Beware too many metrics. There are literally thousands of accounting, financial, operational, safety and human resource metrics to help executives measure and understand the trends and issues affecting their businesses’ long-term success. Being “metrics happy” or focusing on too many metrics that are disconnected from the success of a company is always a potential problem. Dell, the computer and technology company, knows the importance of its brand and strongly values customer opinion. Since direct sales to customers are its primary sales channel, it closely tracks social media opinions and its daily sales rate through a “command center.”

As the Army adapts to a “peace” following the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, it should be exceptionally aware of not falling into a measurement trap that gauges activities not related to training, maintaining, improving, fielding and employing a world-class fighting force. Leaders should strive to create three to five primary measures that reflect what their units must do to be successful against a formidable enemy in combat. Finally, measurements are only one of several assessment tools that a leader has to determine the well-being and effectiveness of his or her organization.

Find ways to encourage innovation through initiative and creativity. As a leader, are you honest, open and vulnerable? Business leaders who are truly interested in innovating and creating effective, excellent products and services embrace internal challenges and change to the status quo. In a famous news story, ABC News went to IDEO, an innovative design firm based in California, and had them design a new shopping cart as a test of their creativity. IDEO’s leaders coached, guided and challenged their employees on the “why” of their design choices but largely let the multifunctional employee teams come up with the best, most innovative design.

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Credit: U.S. Army

The best practice that the IDEO leaders used to manage the design process was an open, honest admission that they did not have all the answers. Army leaders need to understand that truly great innovation and change require honesty, are uncomfortable and are often beset by initial failures as teams stretch their abilities to create something truly great. Army leaders need to help their teams by framing the requirements and goals but then be willing to move from leader to teacher and coach to let their teams find great, innovative solutions.

Great business leaders are specialists. When you look at great business leaders like Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Page (Google), Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Anne Mulcahy (Xerox), you will find they are all deep specialists and thought leaders in their industries. Indeed, most of them have transformed their industries. What brought these leaders to their level of success was more than leadership, capital generation, innovation and organizational expertise; it was that they were true visionaries in what their companies should offer customers and what their customers truly need.

Military leaders tend to be broad generalists with perhaps an area or two of specialization. The focus area for military leaders is how to understand, identify and capture the truly dynamic, challenging and breakthrough concepts within the profession of arms and their particular functional area. While military leaders will always be generalists (largely because strong generalists can command combined arms organizations better), they need to develop a deep specialization and knowledge base to truly generate innovative and breakthrough ideas in warfighting.

Listen to your customers. For business leaders, satisfying their customers’ needs is the sole reason their organization exists. Peter Drucker, the true thought leader of modern management science, stated, “The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” For Schultz of Starbucks, it was more than just great coffee and food to satisfy customers; it was creating a “third place” for people to go to socialize and enjoy coffee and the European café experience. Understanding customers and their needs drives great business.

Army leaders face an onslaught of possible customers. Who are they? Congress? Our soldiers? Our citizens? When we think of what makes an army survive, thrive and grow, we come to realize that our Army’s customers are the soldiers whom we train, employ and lead. A great business is truly focused on its customers, and great Army leaders truly focus on their soldiers.

Never underestimate any competitor. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive.” Grove’s paranoia helped drive a culture of innovation, excellence, creativity and design that few companies have ever emulated. Indeed, Grove’s focus on paranoia was a warning to companies to be aware of competitors both seen and unseen. For example, for Proctor & Gamble’s Cascade dishwasher detergent, it is easy to monitor Unilever’s Sunlight brand of detergent. The competition between Cascade and Sunlight stems from a clear, known and open competitor.

But what if Samsung developed a dishwasher that does not need detergent? Samsung, a manufacturing company, would then be competing directly with a consumer packaged-goods company. These very unexpected product and industry shifts have been the most damaging among various business competitors. Amazon initially was a competitor to only established publishers for book sales. Today, with a robust cloud network and an immense physical distribution center, the company competes with IBM for cloud services as well as Wal-Mart for sales of consumer goods. The most dangerous competitors are the ones you don’t see coming. Army leaders need to look for points of vulnerability in the force—from logistics to airframes to communications to equipment and tactics—where potential competitors can come in and reduce or mitigate the Army’s effectiveness.

The Army as an institution is strong. Leadership practices, training methodologies, ethical standards, mission planning and preparation frameworks, and the intelligence process are all strong examples of areas about which businesses can learn from the U.S. Army. Army leaders in turn can learn a great deal from business leaders and their ability to create, mold, lead and change organizations through dynamic, challenging times when a few months can often spell the demise of a once successful business.

When businesses manage to a few core metrics that directly reflect their company’s success, they encourage innovation, have executives that are thought leaders, listen to their customers to find their future success, and are intimately aware of competitors both seen and unseen. These are the real lessons for the U.S. Army to take from business for future challenges. Leading and managing in periods of dynamic change will never be easy, but leaders who listen, innovate, create and maintain the best parts of their organization will always be successful.