The landing craft is on fire!” These words, shouted very loudly into my ear whilst sitting in the freezing cold and now smoke-filled hold of a burning landing craft, echo in my brain when I think about uncertainty. Back in 2008 whilst serving as a Troop Commander in the Royal Marines, I got my first real taste of the chaos of military operations. This was an exercise, which was supposed to be a rapid night-time helicopter raid in Northern Norway, and ended up being a 12 hour ‘epic’ daylight assault.
The first setback was a snowstorm that precluded helicopter flights. No biggie, we would just use a landing craft instead. This turned out to be on a different ship and there was only enough room to take half of the men in my Company; this was now more serious. Not being able to land directly on the enemy position removed the advantage of surprise. Combine this with a smaller attacking force and we would surely face defeat. We had to quickly adapt our plan on the fly.
Shortly after setting off, the landing craft had an engine fire. Surely this now meant mission failure. But no, instead we cross-decked as many of the marines as we could, into two smaller boats. The farce continued when one of these boats subsequently had a breakdown and had to be towed by the other. The marines were now laughing at the absurdity of the situation. We eventually waded ashore, cold and tired, a full 12 kilometres from the objective and had to undertake an arduous cross-country ski. By the time we arrived at the enemy position it was already daylight and there were far fewer of us than originally planned. We changed our tactic from one of assaulting en masse from the air, to one of stealth, using small teams to sneak past the sentries and to attack them from behind their defences. I think, to everyone’s surprise, this worked, and we soon secured the objective.
Of course, achieving the mission, irrespective of the challenges that confront you is part and parcel of military operations. But what I took away from that day was just how adaptable we had become in the face of adversity. This went well beyond the tenacity, courage and quick thinking of the individual Commandos. Each of them able to find humour in each setback, taking it in their stride and working together to complete the task in hand. The lesson I really learned here was about culture.
The thing that struck me was how much the culture of the organisation influenced our ability to adapt to this volatile and uncertain environment as a team. This was down to three things. The positive attitude and willingness to accept change of the individuals. The explicit and well-rehearsed military planning process used by everyone. The numerous contingency plans and drills, hammered into each and every one of us through years of training, exercises and war games.
I have carried each of these lessons with me ever since. Over the next 10 years of my military career and now in my ‘civvy’ life as a decision-making coach and mentor to business leaders, I have built upon these early lessons.
Pictured are members of 45 Commando conducting wader drills as part of EX AB from RFA MOUNTS BAY during Ex Octans 08 in Norway.
ALL IMAGES CLEARED FOR USE BY LT MONTGOMERY, UNIT PRO
FACE THE UNKNOWN AS A TEAM
Change is the new normal. The pace of this change is relentless. Instead of anticipating known risks, organisations now exist in a state commonly referred to as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), interestingly a phrase that was first coined by the U.S. Army War College. In times where there is no external certainty, it is vital to find structure within the organisation. To build a sense of collective resilience in the face of mounting challenges. In effect to make the act of adapting to the situation routine. Transformation projects used to be particular events; now change is an everyday part of life so businesses and their leaders constantly need to adapt just to survive, let alone succeed.
This is of course far easier said than done. But a crucial component is in empowering individuals to own the change. This requires building mental resilience in the team. To do this we must engender a culture that prides itself on its ability to adapt and problem solve. This is why The Royal Marines recruiting slogan is ‘…it’s a strength of mind’. At first glance this perhaps seems a bit odd. An organisation whose role and selection process seems to be all about overcoming immense physical challenges has a slogan that focuses on mental strength. But of course, the reality is that facing the uncertainty of combat operations takes a far greater psychological toll than any of the physical challenges of war fighting. Maintaining both good communication and a sense of humour is vital. Understanding the reasoning of senior decision makers and working in a relaxed and fun environment takes the sting out of painful and disruptive change programmes. This is why soldiers still routinely manage to find humour in the darkest of circumstances.
An organisation that is willing to change and is keen to seize the opportunities that this agility brings needs to be enabled with the tools to continually change smoothly. As the environment becomes less predictable, the organisation needs to become more agile. This requires delegating decision making to those individuals who are best placed to respond to a dynamic and changing situation. In the military we call this ‘Mission Command’. To work, it requires the ability to have a centralised vision and yet at the same time to have a decentralised execution. In other words, we need the individuals throughout the organisation to understand the strategy and be empowered to act as they see fit to contribute to the achievement of the collective aims.
When our helicopters couldn’t fly or when the landing craft burst into flames, it wasn’t the Commanding Officer, in a tent over 60km away, who decided what we should do. It was the Company Commander and the men at the scene. He, along with the support from the team around him, came up with a new plan to achieve the mission. The point is for leaders to trust their staff, telling them what to achieve without being overly prescriptive as to how. To do this we need to build standardised processes for anticipating, planning and implementing change. Again, clear communication is essential. Everyone in the organisation from the CEO down to the interns needs to know how they are contributing to the achievement of the overall vision. Perhaps as important is the mutual trust that allows the staff to make decisions, knowing that even if they are wrong, they will not be punished. Instead, an organisation that is adaptive will use mistakes as opportunities to learn, develop and grow. Without this psychological safety, crucial decisions will be avoided for fear of retribution, and the organisation will struggle to adapt. In the military we have a saying, “no decision is far worse than the wrong decision.”
DON’T REACT. RESPOND!
The First World War General Helmuth von Molke once said “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Any project manager worth their salt will attest to this. There are just too many external factors that are beyond our control to allow us to ever execute a flawless plan. This truism is more relevant now, in the age of ‘dataism’, than ever before. So why have a strategy and why bother with planning at all?
Another great General, Dwight D. Eisenhower also said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
By planning we immerse the organisation in the practice of linking operations to the strategy. It provides a common understanding of how the company vision will be enacted through the day-to-day activities. When external factors force us to make dynamic changes, we have a common baseline from which to deviate. A shared appreciation of how the change in circumstance is likely to affect the organisation and more importantly the individuals within the organisation, will allow them to have a good grasp of how the changes specifically affects their contribution to the strategy and therefore what individual changes they will need to make. For my team in Norway the chaos of the weather and the unforeseen events of the fires and breakdowns, made our entire assault plan invalid. But because we all knew how the raid was supposed to affect the wider operation and the effect we needed to achieve, we could quickly and confidently adjust our actions to continue to meet the wider organisation’s aim in a different way.
Planning also forces us to explore the ‘what if’ questions. As the environment we operate in becomes ever more complex and fast paced it will become harder for us to predict. Instead we should explore a range of possible scenarios. By ‘wargaming’ our responses to these scenarios we can plan for contingencies and have response plans ready to go, develop our organisation’s adaptability, and push our staff to think more creatively about problems. This is how we managed to adapt the plan so quickly whilst already in transit to the objective when in Norway.
If we don’t do this, when faced with changing circumstances, people tend to do one of three things; panic and make highly emotionally-charged decisions, default to comfortable but inappropriate norms, or worst of all, become overwhelmed and do nothing.