Learn what the military learned about Strategy

It’s human nature to look ahead to the future. We’ve been doing that since we were kids—always looking forward to the next birthday, the next school vacation, the next major life event, or simply the next weekend. This preoccupation with the future is an important aspect of leadership. The higher up the career ladder you climb, the further into the future you need to be thinking and looking to set the course for the success of your organization. The future, however, is not a magical destination at which you arrive. It is a journey that begins where the present stops.

With apologies to George Santayana who might argue that understanding where we’ve been is the most fundamental aspect of strategy formulation (it was Santayana who famously stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), I’d like to suggest that any sound strategy must first be rooted in a clear understanding of the present. Those who don’t understand the competitive environment of the present risk spend their planning energy solving the wrong problem.

At the core of this question of understanding the present (“Where are you Today?”), is the challenge of identifying if the problems your organization are facing are complicated or complex. What’s the difference? In short, complicated problems tend to be more linear and predictable, with known information and actors. Complex problems are more dynamic, novel, with more uncertainty. Let me explain a little further using my experiences as an officer and strategic planner in the US Army to help illustrate my point. The US military operation to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 (Operation Desert Storm) was complicated. There were plenty of challenges: moving the mountain of personnel and equipment to the Middle East, coordinating a massive air campaign to set the conditions for the success of the impending ground campaign, building a cohesive team between each of the US military services and foreign allies participating in the operation, and finally synchronizing the massive “left hook” that ultimately destroyed Saddam’s Army. Desert Storm was certainly complicated, but not complex because we were facing a well-known enemy, conducting a traditional military operation in a climate we’d been preparing to fight in for years (the US Army’s National Training Center is near Death Valley, California).

Contrast that with the experience of the US Army in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and collapse of Saddam’s regime. As the insurgency grew in strength, we faced a new type of enemy. As all the civic functions collapsed, there were no institutions or agencies other than the US Army available to provide those basic services, governance and security—most of which were non-traditional missions that were not part of the Army’s core competencies. The Army found itself facing complex problems in Iraq in 2004 and beyond: unknown/new enemies, unknown/new mission requirements, plenty of confusion and a general lack of information.

So what? Why does this matter? Army leaders began to realize that the old processes and methods of crafting strategy and conducting strategic planning were no longer effective. The present was not the past. Throughout the Cold War, Army commanders and their staffs understood the enemy we faced (the Soviet Union), their tactics, their doctrine and their strategic goals. When it came to conducting strategic planning, everyone was operating in a familiar environment, solving familiar problems with familiar processes and solutions. This doesn’t mean any of it was easy! It was challenging and certainly quite complicated, requiring expertise and lots of hard work to do it successfully. But it wasn’t complex.

Because of this familiarity of environment, enemy and missions during the Cold War, Army commanders and their staffs had an outstanding understanding of their present situation and challenges. They could intuitively answer the question “Where are you today”, allowing them to skip that vitally important step in strategy formulation and move directly into solving the “problem” with their strategic planning process. This clear understanding of the present allowed commanders to define the problem, provide the guidance necessary to their staffs to conduct the planning process and produce a strategic plan that served them well.

In Iraq in 2004 and beyond, commanders found themselves operating in a complex environment, without a clear understanding of the situation, unable to define the problems they faced or provide clear guidance to their staffs. The Cold War era strategic planning processes were not sufficient to produce meaningful plans and strategies to address the complex challenges posed by the insurgency in Iraq. A now famous example of this problem is the guidance one brigade commander received in June 2006 for his mission: “…fix Ramadi, but don’t destroy it. Don’t do a Fallujah.” How would you have liked to have been handed that for guidance? That’s not an indictment of his higher level commander and staff—just an example that highlights how Army leaders were struggling during that time period to develop true understanding of their present situation and how inadequate the strategy and planning processes were at defining the problem, producing meaningful guidance and successful plans. Iraq was a complex environment, but for a time Army leaders failed to recognize this reality and continued to try and operate as if it was merely complicated. They tried to use the old Cold War processes and procedures to understand their current situation and formulate their strategies to move forward.

Today, markets are hyper competitive and global, and the digital age is rendering tried and true business models obsolete. Strategic planning of twenty years ago was often really just long-term planning… appropriate for complicated markets, but not necessarily complex ones. Today, strategies must be as dynamic as the competitive environment in which they are set to yield advantages. Army leaders adapted and instituted new ways of thinking, new planning processes and procedures in order to more effectively overcome the complex challenges they faced in Iraq. These changes stretched from the battlefield to the classroom, being taught in officer education courses and written into doctrine.
Most organizations in the marketplace today would do well to learn from the Army’s experience in Iraq. Before you start the planning process, slow down and consider if you’re operating in a complex environment or a complicated one. If you even think you’re operating in a complex environment, then consider some of these critical action steps:

  • Resist the urge to prematurely define the problem and rush into planning.
  • Build adequate time at the start of your strategic planning process to truly develop understanding of your current situation and clearly define your organization’s “problem”.
  • Foster an environment that encourages and values alternative viewpoints.
  • Eliminate any “rank” within your strategy/planning team and let everyone know that whoever has the best idea or train of thought is the “ranking” member, leading the discussion at that time.
  • Look for people in your organization for whom nothing is sacred, who aren’t shy about challenging everything, who possess a healthy curiosity and skepticism…and get them onto your strategic planning team immediately. Regardless of their position or time in the organization.
  • Question every assumption. They’re necessary when building strategy and strategic plans, but every assumption must rigorously be tested to ensure it is both valid and necessary.
  • Learn to value what you don’t know at least as much as what you do. In complex environments, it is the recognition of the reality that our understanding of the situation and definition of the problem is likely never going to be perfect…therefore we must continually be assessing our understanding against new information as it is available and adjusting our path forward as necessary.

None of this is easy—change never is. But, taking the time upfront to answer the vital question “where are you today,” to develop true understanding of the present situation, is absolutely critical to any successful forward-looking strategy. Taking this important first step will help leaders clearly define the problem, determine a direction to head and provide the vision and guidance to the organization to set the strategic plans in place to achieve it. Failure to take this step can result in missteps, wasted time and lost money as the organization solves the wrong problem or only part of the problem.

Don’t make the mistake of using processes and applying solutions that worked in a complicated environment to a complex problem!

Paul Robyn is a Strategy Consultant with Geo Strategy Partners and a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Army. He has experience leading strategic planning efforts in the Pacific and Middle East for the US Army as well as for Special Operations forces, including two years working on the Department of Defense’s number 1 priority strategic planning effort. His focus now is on helping businesses and organizations develop sound strategies to achieve their goals and objectives.

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