Thursday, February 6, 2014

This is Not an Air War!

            As the Marine Corps ends over a decade of sustained combat operations and is reduced to its lowest force structure in recent history, leaders at all levels need to be more adaptive than ever. The Marine Corps has faced similar problems in the past but still managed to drive excellence and innovation in the process (i.e. amphibious warfare doctrine in the 1930s). Facing tough challenges ahead, it is an ideal time to think seriously about the ways the Marine Corps will ensure it continues to identify and spread excellence throughout the organization. 

Two Stanford professors, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao have written a thought provoking new book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling For Less, that addresses this problem. The term “scaling” is not a Silicon Valley buzz word; it is something that our most innovative leaders do as a matter of course. It involves spreading excellence from those who have it to those who do not. An easy example to conceptualize this term is entry level Marine Corps training. The Marines start with the same basic raw material as any other service, but those who emerge afterwards are completely unique in their beliefs and actions. Another example of a scaling effort would be the efforts of the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned to take the best practices of units fighting in Helmand Province and spreading them to other Marines across the organization.  

Scaling Up Excellence thoughtfully examines both success stories and failures in the battles to spread excellence. Pulling no punches (United Airlines takes quite a beating), the authors demonstrate that rolling out snappy PowerPoint presentations or conducting one-off “training stand-downs” will not work (these quick-fixes are equated to dropping a few “smart-bombs” and declaring victory). As the authors say in the first chapter this is more like a ground war than an air war. Scaling is a long-term effort requiring tremendous energy and perseverance.

            Sutton and Rao have distilled the hard learned lessons of scaling into five crisp principles and seven mantras that are elaborated on through very interesting case studies.  

            One principle, described by the authors as “cutting the cognitive load”, describes the need to relentlessly cut complexity during these endeavors, but in doing so sometimes cuts go too deep. Consider the route that some organizations take to eliminate middle managers as an organization grows. While cutting what may appear to be unnecessary levels of supervision may seem like a good idea at first, this often results in employees being unable to function effectively. The authors cite good data on why managing teams (without sub-team managers) that grow past seven and into double digits becomes increasingly ineffective (for more on this see George Miller’s magical number concept) Large enterprises are often too complex to operate in with unstructured teams.
            To elaborate on this point the authors use the example of the Marine Corps fire team. As described by James Webb in a 1972 Marine Corps Gazette article, the smallest Marine fighting unit in World War II was the infantry squad, which Webb referred to as the “12-man mob” because one leader could not provide adequate control over so many people in combat. To fix this problem the squad was broken down into three, four-man fire teams, each with their own leader. Battlefield performance improved because the squad leader was able to focus on his team leaders instead of trying to direct all of the members of the squad.    

            The complex issues facing the military are not abating. The need for continuous innovation and adaptation to face these challenges and threats is paramount. For all Marine leaders, be they at the fire team or general officer level, reading Scaling Up Excellence is an excellent starting point to deepen your understanding of this process. The authors end with practical advice on how to scale effectively and demonstrate that organizational success depends not on how good some of its people are, but how those with excellence can spread their beliefs and actions to those that need them.