Career Woman

How to implement military-grade training in the workplace


For decades, most leadership development curriculum has taught frameworks, tools and models for predicting and controlling situations. Reliable cause-and-effect promises have been baked into these tools, promising leaders from any industry overly simplistic solutions to any problem.

However, cause-and-effect doesn’t take into account the inherent uncertainty that exists in social systems, particularly in today’s society. It ignores the need to help leaders acquire skills for the surprises that are inevitable in all organisations, as well as not considering the context of each individual situation. It would simply be unreasonable and naive to suggest we can predict or imply a knowable world of cause-and-effect.

Uncertainty is everywhere

Sometimes things work as anticipated, yet many times they don’t. Sometimes the big grand CEO announcement generates little to no desired effect, while one tiny utterance in a company-wide email rings on and on in the corridors of the business for months or years.

Stories like this are everywhere in the lived experience of managers. Stories which remind them constantly that, while they might be in charge, they most definitely are not in control. There is no playbook, precedent or guru available for best practice. That’s precisely why attempting to train leaders for every response is naive and impossible.

Rather, the focus should be on training them to be responsive and adaptive. In today’s society of political, social and economic uncertainty, it’s impossible to anticipate what’s hiding around the corner.

For example, food delivery services are quickly becoming the new convenient go-to fast food services instead of traditional bricks and mortar fast food chains, or the introduction of Amazon to Australian shores potentially spelling trouble for our local shopping giants.

Learning from the military

This is where we can learn a few things from the military. Many of their training methods rely on the unreliable. You never know what will happen in a theatre of war. True strength lies in being able to adapt to the uncertainty of the environment, rather than training for specific scenarios, because war doesn’t have a playbook and neither should leadership.

One of the ways the military trains its soldiers for these situations involves placing them under situations of uncertainty. This could include changes in operations, loss of leadership, sleep deprivation, conflicting reports, rushed situations, ethical issues and technical problems. All of these situations are perfectly plausible and can be practiced and rehearsed. Not to predict what will happen, but that if something like them happens the soldiers will have some similar experience and training to use to inform their response.

Although far less lethal, leadership is similar, and leaders can be faced with most of these situations as well. Perhaps your competitor has just released a product to market before you and changed the industry, or the regulator has changed the game on your whole sector, or someone wrote something online that has lit up the internet.

Our hyper-connectivity triggers huge consequences from the smallest of actions, and we experience so many situations we would not have before, many of which the public has access to. These situations also affect stakeholders and customers, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a result of your own actions. For example, we saw the leak earlier this year of a Google employee’s “anti-diversity” email document. Damore published the memo a month before it came to light, and nobody at Google, including himself and his managers, could have predicted it was going to go viral and receive the backlash it did in the public domain.

Tips for implementing military-grade training in the workplace

Train in uncertainty

Set yourself and your team theoretical problems to tackle and solve before they actually arise (e.g. a new garage upstart just stole your largest client, what do you do?). The more vague, the better. When the team or company dynamic changes, practice again. Practice deliberately as much as you can.

Practice difficult conversations with uncertain outcomes. Not so you can develop pre-planned approaches, but so you get good at adapting to unexpected challenges in real-time. When the real dilemma finally arrives, you will have prepared how to respond, secure in your priorities for the business and your practiced ability to justify your course of action.

Act first, understand second

When we know where we are going, we are moving from point A to point B. Yet when in the midst of uncertainty, all we know is that we are moving from A to “Not A”. We don’t where, or what, point “B” is. All we do we know is that it is not where we are currently.

We do not have the luxury to first understand things in order to then do them second. Rather, we must do things first in order to understand them second. The unknown point B we are trying to find will show itself from the efforts we make to explore and experiment our way forward.

We must encourage those around us to constantly experiment in small chunks, learning along the way. Urge them to try things, small tests that are safe to fail. Perhaps investing an hour of time, spending a few hundred dollars, or involving a small number of people in a new process. In times of uncertainty, doing trumps thinking, and solutions emerge from action.

Accept there’s no playbook

Today’s leaders don’t face the same challenges as the ones who came before them, which means having nobody to turn to for advice or guidance. Rather than trying to control every situation and follow a pseudo set of rules created by people not in the same position, leaders must acknowledge and accept that part of leading means living in uncertainty. Greater group fitness for the generative power of conflict, the anxiety of doubt, and the irrepressible uncertainty will give more potential for novelty and progress.

In a world that craves clarity, the current climate is full of questions and uncertainty. The best thing you can do for your business is learn to deal with the inherent uncertainty, and what better way to do that than to follow the footsteps of people who’ve been training for it for decades?

About Marcus Crow

Marcus Crow is co-founder at 10,000 Hours . Marcus has more than 10,000 hours of experience as a specialist in executive education, group facilitation and keynote speaking. He has been practising in his profession for more than 20 years. He holds a Bachelor of Business from UTS, is a practising member of the Australian Society of Group Psychotherapists, and is a long-time member of Australian Mensa. He has a career background as an auditor with Price Waterhouse, a sales and marketing professional with Colgate-Palmolive and Mitsubishi Electric. Marcus understands the sales and marketing front end of business as much as the operational middle and back end of service delivery. In 1999, he co-founded, built, grew, then sold Phuel (formerly Oxygen Learning) Australia’s then leading experiential learning and development practice, to John Singleton’s STW Group (now WPP AUNZ).

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