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IT Strategy – Risky thinking from US marines

Business and war are different. Physical danger is usually absent in business, and lives are rarely at stake. Nevertheless, there are similarities in the problems that generals and board members face. In both cases, decisions are often taken against a background of uncertainty and under time pressure.

What’s more, like their business counterparts, senior military leaders have to deal with the demands of changing technology, budget constraints and skills shortages.

So has the military come up with any interesting ideas that business could use? It’s not difficult to find out. Thanks to the US political system’s extraordinary devotion to freedom of information, the current manuals used by all the US armed services to teach strategy, logistics and so on are available on the web (see below).

It turns out that modern military thinking is all about achieving speed and agility. Rigid authoritarianism seems scarcely to get a look in. “To generate the tempo of operations we desire and to best cope with the uncertainty, disorder and fluidity of combat, command and control must be decentralised,” says Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting.

Subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative, so they don’t waste time going up the chain of command. Subordinates are also encouraged to talk directly to each other. But how do the marines stop the army descending into chaos? The solution is to use “mission tactics”.

Under this approach orders take the form of a clear assignment of tasks, along with a succinct statement of what the action is intended to accomplish.

But subordinates are left as free as possible to choose the manner of accomplishment.

There are thus two parts to any mission: the task to be accomplished and the intent behind it. “A clear expression and understanding of intent is essential to unity of effort,” says Warfighting.

The same key principle of decentralisation also applies during planning.

But there’s also the imperative to adjust the planning approach to match the time available. “There is no perfect solution to any battlefield problem; we should not agonise over one,” says MCDP-6, Command & Control. Instead, “we should adopt a promising scheme with an acceptable degree of risk, and do it more quickly than our foe. As General George Patton said, ‘A good plan violently executed NOW is better than a perfect plan next week'”.

I’ve concentrated on the Marine Corps here, because, since 1989, the marines have implemented radical changes to their approach. Their new doctrine is also in the western mainstream, as much of it is based on the ideas of Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).

Indeed, Warfighting is almost a summary, with modern examples, of Clausewitz’s On War – although it is shorter and much more readable.

Another influential strategic idea that has found its way into business jargon, is the notion of agility. But a look at its origins in the US Air Force reveals agility to be something less obvious than it might appear.

Reviewing the outcome of air-to-air combat over Korea, USAF Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997) was struck by how often the faster and more manoeuvrable aircraft didn’t win. What turned out to matter more was agility – which he defined as the ability to change from one manoeuvre state to another.

Agility is not simply speed or performance. The key thing, according to Boyd, is how long it takes the pilot/aircraft system to complete the whole observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) cycle. If you can do this quickly enough, then you can begin your next action before your opponent can respond.

This thinking has led to major changes in aircraft design. Modern aircraft, such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which is NATO’s most common fighter, and the carrier-borne F/A-18 Hornet, aren’t faster or tighter-turning than their predecessors of 30 years ago. Instead they are more twitchy and responsive.

Feedback is central to their agility. By repeatedly going through the observe-orient-decide-act cycle you can wrong-foot and confuse your opponent – and also learn valuable things about them. Boyd elaborated this insight into a whole theory about how the OODA loop has been at work in conflicts throughout history.

US Marine Corps doctrinal publications can be found at

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