Book extract: The Commando Way – extraordinary business execution

AN EXTRACT FROM THE COMMANDO WAY, a book by Damian McKinney, a former Royal Marine, giving his insights into what companies could learn from the armed forces.

How are you feeling about your business? What about other people in the organisation? Is everyone feeling focused and motivated? Is everyone clear about the company’s objectives and about their individual role in delivering the plan? My guess is that most people will answer “no, not really, things could be better”.

These are challenging times. Companies are playing safe; employees are playing safer; and very few are truly engaged in what they do. But how do you get things done? You need brilliant business execution but you might not be sure how to achieve that, action might even seem like a risk.

This risk aversion inside companies is playing out against a much-changed and ever-changing external environment. We live in unusual times; times of great uncertainty. The cause has been a rapid series of strategic shocks that have rocked the security of our collective and individual views of the world. The 9/11 attack was one such shock, and the images of the New York skyline collapsing are burnt into our memories, no matter where we were on the globe when we first saw those images. The 2008 financial crisis and its continuing aftermath was another strategic shock; the financial environment changed overnight, and companies as well as people are still feeling the effects around the world. Perhaps we are now seeing a third strategic shock in ten years with the changes that have swept across the Arab nations, and we are yet to appreciate the full scale of the scenario that is still unfolding.

In between these events created by humans, profoundly affecting the way we live and do business, there are other global events flooding through the cracks of our man-made environment. These might be natural catastrophes, seemingly coming faster and faster: floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions. Without wanting to sound apocalyptic, it’s safe to say that a belief in long-term planning is no longer as sustainable in the business world as it once was. All this makes the competitive business environment tougher than ever.

Uncertainty is now the norm. Those strategic shocks, as well as the natural events, provide the context in which other ground-shifting events alter the overall outlook for business. Natural disasters such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami lead to industrial and economic aftershocks – just as the repercussions continue from the domino effect of countries needing financial bail-outs in the eurozone. It is not just the outlook that changes, in terms of economic trends, it is the philosophy with which we conduct business. As the commercial landscape shifts, it becomes increasingly clear that the business rule-books of the last century no longer apply. The new rules for successful business engagement have to stress the need for individual initiative, rather than the slow-footed, slow-witted response of a command-and-control business model.

Companies are struggling with the increased uncertainty of the external world. But the internal world brings its own frictions too, and this can make organisational life difficult for leaders and employees. Recent studies have shown that more and more employees are unclear about their company’s direction and objectives. As a result, they are not clear about their own role in achieving success for their team, division or organisation. They have to contend with competing internal agendas, poor communication of objectives and progress, dysfunctional leadership teams and, increasingly, fewer resources to get the job done. No wonder many people in large organisations feel less valued and less engaged than before the financial crisis.

In response, many businesses and their leaders have retreated to a more command-and-control style even though it is the wrong style for this situation. “Just do as I say and we will push you through this uncertain world.” In fact, while I wouldn’t argue against the need for greater regulation post-2008, in reality in an unstable world, rigidity of thought and response is likely to leave a company stranded.

The world moves on. The social, economic and political environment is volatile, subject to changes in the way we think and behave as consumers, corporations and citizens. Most obviously, changes in technology affect us all as individuals, and they affect every business. Every day, we find new ways of gaining knowledge, delivering information and making connections. The internet has changed the way we do everything, yet it is still a relatively new medium, a brave new world still to be explored. But here and now it affects the way we conduct business, the way we shop, travel and have relationships with other people. Because relationships are no longer confined to our private lives. Relationship has become an essential word in the corporate and marketing vocabulary – with all the greater potential for emotional uncertainty that comes with it as a natural consequence.

Command-and-control is an old model, designed for an ordered, hierarchical, predictable world. That world is gone. In the current uncertain world, the old model leads to a lack of pace, accountability and agility to deal with fast-changing events. It paralyses the front line, leading to internal friction that hampers performance. Even if sound strategies are agreed, they are difficult to carry through. Business execution of strategies falls short because of failures of will, motivation, alignment. The corporate machine freezes because different parts of the organisation don’t work together.

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