Managing on the Front Lines
As the military studies the Iraq war for lessons in battlefield strategy, we thought it was time to revisit "Corps Values," our April 1998 story by David H. Freedman, which drew management advice from the Semper Fi crowd. As it happens, a new business book also focuses on the few, the proud. We sat down with Jason Santamaria, a former Marine and one of three co-authors of The Marine Corps Way: Using Maneuver Warfare to Lead a Winning Organization, to discuss what lessons from Operation Iraqi Freedom might be applicable to business. Since the Marines prefer to manage items in lists of three, here are our three top takeaways.
1. An organization can achieve its objectives even when it's rushed or lacks resources. Though those angry about the missing weapons of mass destruction might disagree, Santamaria believes that one of the chief lessons of the war is that "any decision made with more than 80% of the information available is hesitation." The United States commenced the ground campaign in Iraq before all troops were in place, he notes, but still captured Baghdad after just two weeks of combat, even though supply lines were often tenuous.
2. Moving fast confuses the competition. When the U.S. made a quick transition from air to ground attacks last March, Iraqi troops were surprised. Some experts have speculated that that's why Saddam Hussein's forces didn't set oil wells on fire as they did in the 1991 Gulf War. They simply didn't have enough time to coordinate a response. In the business world, you can mimic the strategy the Marines call "tempo" by focusing on innovation and new product development.
3. Decentralized decision making works. During both the invasion and occupation, Marine commanders have given colonels unprecedented autonomy, so long as they achieve results. Admittedly, there is a clear risk in decentralizing command. It could backfire, and result in organizational chaos. But without shifting power down through the ranks, decision making in moments of intense pressure can be inefficient. For businesses, Santamaria says, the lesson is that "you want to push the decision making onto the people with interaction in the market."
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