A few weeks ago, as part of Social Media Week, Alan Patrick and I ran the very well received Social Media in Enterprise event (which we’ll run again!). It provided 8 different perspectives on collaboration in the enterprise using the new tools. Amongst the many issues raised in a night of some great discussion and excellent follow up blog posts, I see two key themes:
- A dichotomy between the social media practitioners, like Adriana Lukas, who think the only way to make this stuff work is a bottom up, guerrilla warfare style approach, versus those of us (including me) who see that way can be perfectly effective, but believe a top down, old fashioned approach to implementation with senior executive sponsorship can work just as well or better.
- The fact that we all talked about organizational hierarchy and culture as a major factor, and that these tools subvert the “natural” command and control management structures that most big corporations have, and which many of our newer companies grow up to adopt. The new tools are overlaying a network centric communication approach, which is beginning to flatten the organization and reduce the power of the traditional organization chart.
That got me thinking about whether we could learn from the way military tactics and warfare have evolved up to the present day, and particularly from the tactics of special forces. Could we develop an approach for enterprise 2.0 adoption, doing the kind of job that Al Ries and Jack Trout’s Marketing Warfare book did 20 years ago applying military thinking to the marketing mix?
“Businesses that succeed, and continue to succeed, are driven by a big vision that reaches beyond the walls of the business itself”
Whether it’s the mission of the company, or the objectives of a particular plan, things have to be clear. I blogged recently about Trout’s book and making things Obvious, and the fact that we see too many mission statements that are so generic as to be meaningless. We live in a world of killer competition, and whether we’re fighting the marketing battle, or internal red tape and politics, things change fast. So looking for a parallel in military thinking, “commander’s intent” has been an important concept on the battlefield, particularly because of this dose of reality from Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800–1891) who was a student of the great military strategist Carl von Clausewitz:
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
I found the 1993 US Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5 that described it as follows:
“The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. It must clearly state the purpose of the mission. It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.”
One of the key things here is concise instead of detailed instructions on how to execute. The manual points out that any long narrative descriptions of how the commander sees the fight will tend to inhibit initiative, and we’ll need plenty of that along with innovation in any fight. So whether it’s the vision for the company as a whole, or the required end state for implementing social tools, this is a good explanation of how you need to think through communicating a clear and simple message if you going to be successful.
McRaven’s Theory of Special Operations
I’ve explained before that the name of this blog connects to the Special Air Service because of my father. One of my themes has been applying SAS tactics to business. Is there something we can learn from special forces tactics that can apply to enterprise 2.0 adoption too?
Although there are plenty of first hand accounts of special forces missions from around the world in books, the tactics and principles taught to these elite troops, unsurprisingly, don’t make it in to print that much. However, one theory, popular within the special operations community, is Captain Bill McRaven’s Theory of Special Operations (he’s a Vice Admiral now). He looked at eight historical special operations cases and from them isolated six principles that are key for success in any special operation. For McRaven, a “special operation is conducted by forces specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific target whose destruction, elimination, or rescue, is a political or military imperative.”
From analyzing these historical raids and rescues, McRaven postulates that relative superiority is a necessary condition for success.
“Simply stated, relative superiority is a condition that exists when an attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy.”
The basic properties of relative superiority are that it is achieved at the pivotal moment in an engagement and that relative superiority must be sustained because it is difficult to regain. McRaven was able to deduce six principles for special operations, which are:
According to McRaven “a simple plan, carefully concealed, repeatedly and realistically rehearsed, and executed with surprise, speed, and purpose” provides special operations with the highest probability of succeeding. He divides special operations into three phases:
- Planning (simple)
- Preparation (security and repetition)
- Execution (surprise, speed, and purpose)
As you might expect, he sees simplicity in planning as the most crucial of the six principles. Even for a complex mission you can break the plan down in to simple steps. Special forces teams are limited by particular military doctrine, rule sets, and the commander’s intent They increase the effectiveness of their execution by standardizing each team member’s performance through intensive training and simulation. Designing this guidance for each team member is the key task in the planning phase.
As well as being simple, the plan also needs good intelligence and innovation. Attaining good intelligence is critical in all military planning. Good intelligence can limit the uncertainty in planning, however, intelligence gaps will always exist. The final element of simplicity is innovation. Innovative planning overcomes foreseen obstacles that would otherwise inhibit surprise or increase the time special operators spend in the field of battle.
This approach to planning makes as perfect sense for implementing 2.0 and social tools in an enterprise as it does for the “Raid on Entebbe“.
In the preparation phase security and repetition are key. As you might expect, the missions that McRaven studied usually had special operations attacking a larger force prepared to defend fortified positions. Strict security was required to protect the timing of the operation, as well as the method of attack. Without the element of surprise, the chances of success are always reduced. The second principle for the preparation phase of special operations is repetition. During preparation, full mission rehearsal allows planners to identify critical areas and vulnerabilities to address or mitigate. Adaptability becomes a key tenet of planning, in which rehearsal and repetition focus on understanding how to prioritize the unexpected. That then gets fed back in to improving the plan.
I can see how preparation and rehearsal are as vital in effective presentation of the ideas behind successfully implementing social media tools as they are for the SAS team preparing to enter the Iranian Embassy. Security for our type of project can cover intelligence gathering so we know exactly what we are going in to, but we’re not talking about a covert operation when it comes to 2.0 adoption (although some of my social media colleagues certainly think in those terms). The other side of security for a social media in enterprise project is all about choosing a safe approach and the right technology, in support of what we are trying to achieve, rather than in the lead. Picking technology first is always risky.
Let’s move on to the execution phase. According to McRaven, relative superiority is a condition which exists when the “attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy.” Since relative superiority is perishable and critical to success, McRaven recognizes the importance of surprise as one of his key principles. In this military sphere of operation surprise and speed are paramount.
There’s another strategy that I want to bring in to play during execution – the OODA loop (for observe, orient, decide, and act). This is a concept developed by military strategist and USAF Colonel John Boyd. It can be applied to combat operations, but can also be applied just as well to understand and improve business processes. In the context of special forces, the troops are trained to observe and adapt and innovate. Surprise and speed are used to disrupt the enemies own OODA loop, to disorient them so they are slower to react, to breakdown their own process, and so improve the chances of our success.
These ingredients of the special forces approach map in to a couple of key things in social media projects. I often use a phrase I saw in a Lockheed Martin presentation about their Unity project – think big, start small, act fast. That’s exactly what we are saying here. The other aspect is culture change. For some organizations, there needs to be a massive re-orientation, and the rate that people can adapt to change will vary dramatically. Practitioners working in the thick of the social media battle need to think OODA loop and make sure they are both adaptable and responsive to bring people along. I see too many “one note” evangelists who only bring some of the hostages to old style thinking and business process along with them.
Lastly, McRaven describes his sixth principle of purpose as “understanding and then executing the prime objective of the mission regardless of emerging obstacles or opportunities.” If you haven’t “got” the purpose, this project isn’t going to succeed. Here we’ve come full circle back to commander’s intent, but it’s important to realize that in social media projects purpose is a two way street. The CEO may offer a clear vision for the company. The objectives of the enterprise 2.0 project might be straightforward and succinct, but the purpose has to work for every individual team member too. In my company’s SWITCH methodology, the W stands for “what’s in it for me?”. Just like on the battlefield, the troops need to believe in what they are doing. In the social media landscape, they need to believe in it, AND get something out of it themselves.
In conclusion, I can see how commander’s intent, the OODA loop and McRaven’s six principles of special operations are directly relevant to my experience of a successful enterprise 2.0 approach. A combination of top down and bottom up. It begins to feel like a guerrilla campaign, or a hostage rescue mission because of some of the entrenched culture and outdated processes that we are trying to subvert. If people are going to put up resistance, then this military thinking is going to help understand both the way around the obstacles, and the way we rescue the poor souls stuck inside the old processes.
This is just the start of a thought process and discussion of 2.0 Adoption Warfare (which could be a good title for a mini-book). Now I’m beginning to wonder about the relationship between enterprise 2.0 practitioners like myself and corporate IT. What role does IT play using this military strategic and tactical view of the world? That might be the subject of a follow on post, or a panel at the next Social Media in Enterprise event. Let battle commence.
Reference: McRaven, William. Spec Ops – Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, Presidio, Novato, CA, 1996