James Governor sent me an article called Management by Marching Around which reviews the book “No Yelling: The 9 Secrets of Marine Corps Leadership You Must Know to Win in Business.” While I’m amused by the similarity to the title of my own blog, it got me thinking about military analogies in business.
When people invoke military analogies for leadership in business, they usually project a structure of command and control. Decisions are made by senior people who are nowhere near the battlefield and communicated down to the line soldiers. Sergeants drill conformity and uniformity into soldiers so that they can instantly respond to instructions and resist the temptation to use their own intuition. Images of vast numbers of people operating in lock-step come to mind.
Why are these analogies so prevalent? With the rise of very large businesses in the industrial age, organizations only had two other large institutions to compare themselves against: the Church and the Military. Both were very structured and hierarchical. In The Future of Work, Thomas Malone claims the reason was the cost of communication was so high:
“When the only means of communication is face-to-face conversation, egalitarian decision making among a large number of people usually just takes too long.”
High cost of communications also meant companies tended to be centralized in one location (i.e. the military headquarters). However, phones, airplanes, and the Internet have dramatically lowered the cost of communications. As a result, organizations have become networked and more distributed. Management methodologies and analogies have to keep up. As I said in my inaugural post,
“Manage by walking around worked well when companies tended to be centralized in one campus-style environment. Unfortunately, modern organizations have become decentralized with multiple locations, often spread throughout the world. […] The concept of manage by walking around does not scale well to manage by flying around.”
Interestingly, the military itself seems to be going through the same transformation. One of the most popular US DOD military doctrines is called network-centric warfare (NCW) or operations (NCO). NCW/NCO recognizes information is localized to many separate geographically dispersed locations and attempts to create an interactive network that permits increased information sharing, high amounts of collaboration, and shared best practices. In fact, the concept of a decentralized military has become so prevalent that it’s now popular to talk about semi-autonomous fighting units and splinter cells. These concepts are amazingly similar to those used by strategy-focused organizations trying to improve their performance by increasing alignment.
So, go ahead and use military analogies for business again. Just realize there’s more to it than management by marching around and The Art of War.