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Director’s View

Across the globe, countries are trying different strategies to combat the spread of Covid-19 and in these times, one will be forgiven for drawing an analogy between this, and fighting a real battle in warfare.

Military strategy can however be very useful to guide project-based decision making. In this month’s editorial we will look at how one can draw on battle tested strategies whilst combining the principles of software development. For background and context, in 2001 the Agile Methodology of founding principles for software development was established, which emphasized :

  1. People over processes

  2. Respond to change, rather than follow a plan

  3. Customer collaboration over rigid contracts

  4. Working prototypes over excessive documentation

By combining military strategy with Agile decision making, the common theme is to unlock the full potential of a company by empowering the teams that are closest to the client.

Rapidly shifting challenges require companies to adapt quickly and decisively in terms of updating plans and actions:

1. Confront unknown unknowns

The US War College coined the phrase VUCA in 1987 after the end of the Cold War. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Today’s pandemic business landscape certainly fits that bill! Our teams are operating in an environment where daily events deliver surprises that no leader could have envisioned. In order to adapt to this, one’s mindset needs to shift from a fear of VUCA, to embracing it in an agile manner. This can be achieved by:

  • Driving action by accepting uncertainty as the new normal

  • Setting steps as a guiding set of goals

  • Embracing a plan that is unrelenting and iterative

  • Ensuring that plans are transparent with clear communication

2. Develop cross-function teams to make decisions in the field

The USA’s Joint Special Operation’s General Stanley McChrystal developed a strategy where in stead of a rigid “command and control” structure, a “team of teams” approach was more suitable for the modern battleground. This effectively means that teams are empowered to make decisions without having to revert back for authorisation to a head office, which would result in a loss of value time and opportunity.

The army refers to this as “decision latency”. In business, one can utilise this effectively by ensuring that employees are as empowered as possible to act with agility and to make instant decisions based on information received from clients, stakeholders or competitors.

3. Create the right glide path to land a project

Scrum is known as the most widely used version of Agile operation approaches. It was co-developed by an ex-fighter pilot, called Jeff Sutherland, who used his experience of landing jets on an aircraft carrier. In his words, a glide path of the right angle and trajectory were required for a safe landing, but this glide path also needed to be able to accommodate rapid change if challenges arose. (Such as the shifting flight deck of an aircraft carrier owing to waves or wind).

In the Agile environment this translates to teams concentrating on rapid development to develop a minimal workable product or service at the end of each delivery cycle. This “short runway approach” allows the team to adjust their “glide path” quickly as oppose to facing the risk of waiting where a challenge arises that cannot be rapidly overcome. Examples of this would be a blown deadline or budget.

This agile iterative feedback between teams, stakeholders and customers are vital in a time of rapid change.

4. Balance Realism with Optimism

“Leaders should balance optimism with realism”. This famous sentence was coined by naval officer and former prisoner of war, James Stockdale. According to him, in a POW camp, the optimists are the first victims that perish, owing to the fact that they believe that they would be freed by a set date, such as Christmas or Easter, which never arrives. This inability to acknowledge the reality of their situation, eventually leads to depression and their untimely demise.

In the business world, leaders should share challenges with their employees and never downplay the risk that is involved. This plain talk in times of crisis ensure that teams can focus on the way forward to help deliver on the business’ vision.

5. Pierce the fog of war

One of my favourite military terms is “the fog of war”. It was famously coined by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. His view was that strategy is great, until the first bullet is fired. The fog sets in when rapid changes on the battlefield is not fed back in real-time to a head office in order for a plan to be updated.

The only way to solve this was for light decision-making frameworks that allowed troops to adapt without requiring direct command. Napoleon himself used this strategy, by instructing his troops to always head towards gunfire, in the absence of orders. This was, after all, where they would be needed in battle.

A great example of this in business is Southwest Airlines, that allow staff members a discretionary budget for solving customer challenges, without getting supervisor approval. Bloomberg’s opinion is that owing to this adaptability, Southwest may be one of the few airlines that survives the Covid-19 pandemic.

6. Focus on quick wins balanced with long-term goals

The world’s greatest samurai was reportedly a warrior called Miyamoto Musashi. He developed a fighting style using two swords simultaneously: a short sword for short, quick strokes balanced with the utilising of the traditional long sword. In business the analogy is that a focus on quick wins should be balanced with long term planning and objectives. With the current challenges of Covid-19, leaders realise that life and safety come first, but that the long-term survivability of their company, after the pandemic passes, is just as vital.

7. Practise the OODA Loop

Former fighter pilot and Pentagon strategist, USAF Colonel John Boyd, developed the famous OODA Loop for military warfare:

  • Observe

  • Orientate

  • Decide

  • Act

At the time of creating this strategy, the USA’s enemies had superior aircraft and weaponry. This OODA Loop approach largely negated this advantage, by allowing for the US Airforce to execute orders easily and to communicate effectively to their troops and pilots.

During this current pandemic many business leaders feel hopeless against an invisible enemy that also seem to have the advantage at all times.

By using the OODA principles continually, companies can overcome challenges and maintain their competitive advantage. Agile implementers such as Amazon, Salesforce and Tesla use this daily in their strategic approach.

In conclusion, the famous warrior and tactician Sun Tzu once said that “True victory is breaking the resistance of a challenger without fighting” by selectively using some of the above battlefield approaches in business, leaders can forge partnerships and create alignment in their companies and hopefully navigate the challenges that we all face daily combatting this very real threat to our livelihoods.

Until next time, thank you for your continual support and stay safe!

Warm Regards

Johan de Villiers


First Technology Western Cape

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