Three Lessons from Marine Corps Aviation and How You May Apply Them in Business

Until the past few years I spent most of my adult life in the Marine Corps. While it is true that the Marine Corps, like all military services, includes rigid hierarchies and strict rules, what many people may not realize is the amount of flexibility and latitude that exists to help with operational decision-making. I served mostly in aviation units, and flew several types of crew-served aircraft, where operational execution and risk management were crucial to mission success. Many of the experiences I gained and the things I learned while flying in many different types of operational environments have allowed me to develop a few simple strategies that may be applied to business. While these tenets may not be extremely detailed and may have to be adjusted for each specific scenario, I think they provide entrepreneurs, startups trying to find traction, early stage companies seeking growth, and even larger enterprises with some  guidelines to help with decision-making during planning and operational execution.

1. No matter how detailed your plan is there will be a need to adapt your plan to the operational environment. General von Moltke once stated, “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and this is true for business as well. The enemy may not be an adversary, but may include such factors as competition, constraints, and shifting market demands. In many cases it may not be possible to shift the operational environment so we have to adjust the plan based on what is actually happening (not on what we hoped would happen during planning). For example, for several years I trained brand new student military aviators how to fly complex high-performance aircraft. The plane I flew was extremely robust, but lacked the sophisticated equipment in more modern aircraft, such as a weather radar. So, even if the weather forecast looked good for one training area, sometimes the clouds would roll in and disrupt our training. In that case, if there was another way to accomplish the mission rather than packing up our toys and going home we would seek that option. In many cases we would simply move to another training area where the weather was better. This is analogous to a pivot in business. Rather than giving up when things get difficult or the market doesn’t respond as you expected, is it possible to adapt your offering or approach to the conditions and keep moving forward?

2. Act your way into learning. Sometimes we don’t always know what will work and what won’t.  We can do our best to plan and consider all options, but sometimes we don’t really know what we are capable of and what we should be doing until we start “testing the waters” and look for success points while minimizing failure. Several years ago I transitioned to a new aircraft, called the KC-130J Hercules. This aircraft was a newer version of the older KC-130 “workhorse.” It was highly automated and had many capabilities that we as pilots new to the platform either were not aware of or did not understand how to apply.  In some cases we understood the systems, but had to find ways to actually use the features, refine the tactics, and then develop those procedures into a format that was repeatable and teachable to others. Fortunately we had great Instructor Pilots to help us through the process. Many archaic business plan formats expect organizations to develop elaborate documents to help them carve out their path so they can work that plan into success. Don’t get me wrong; I do believe business plans have their place in entrepreneurial endeavors, but they should not be an end to themselves and if they are overly constraining they may lead early stage business leaders down the wrong path if they put too much emphasis on the business plan itself rather than figuring out what their customers’ need or want. When there is a great deal of uncertainty with new products or services organizations may need to try different things and act their way into learning what works and what doesn’t. This process may lead some organizations astray from elements of their original plans. If those plans are too rigid it could cause indecision and stagnation. This relates to Point 1 above in that if organizations are too wiling to stick with rigid plans they may miss new opportunities for success.

3. Debriefing and capturing lessons-learned are important for team and organizational learning. After many missions, whether training or tactical, we would conduct a debrief. If this was a long training mission with a new flight student the debrief might be longer and would often include specific critiques about what that student did well and ways to improve on weaker areas. On more routine tactical missions with a larger, more experienced crew the debriefs might have been shorter. The point is, though, that we took some time to talk about what went well, what went wrong, and where we could improve. This was a time to get everything out on the table and anybody could critique anybody, regardless of rank or experience. This wasn’t a process of personal admonition, but was a way of describing how individually or collectively we could have done things better or to highlight what we did well. Using this process we developed a continuous learning approach. Additionally, for larger operations we captured major areas of learning using a lessons-learned system so that organizational learning could take place. Years later, this information would still be stored and accessible so that others could learn even after the original group had moved on to other units. This lessons-learned process helps to build organizational resilience and there really isn’t a good reason that I can think of why businesses at any stage can’t apply similar approaches.

A short debriefing session can help highlight what a team did well and what it needs to improve upon, and rather than focusing solely on individual shortcomings, should be designed to help overall teams improve. One reason debriefings may be ignored is because there may be a perception that it takes a long time. After a business project or phase is completed (such as a new product launch) teams may not want to take the time to talk when they are tired or busy moving on to the next project or phase. However, taking time to talk about these areas may help your teams to improve in ways you hadn’t realized. It should also be noted that you can talk about these operational points, but also should consider how risk was managed in the process. How did your team succeed during planning and execution and what systems or actions were used to reduce the likelihood of failure? Did you build in barriers, defenses, or recovery options to minimize losses, such as triggering events that helped you recognize when to change courses of action if or when necessary? What would you do differently in the future? Where there any surprises? These are all things you can ask and learn from. Try not to only focus on discussing failures or weaknesses, but also to learn from your team’s successes as well.

These are 3 simple guidelines that I learned from Marine Corps aviation and I believe that if you apply them they may serve to help your teams and organizations reach higher levels of performance.

V-Speed’s approach has traditionally been oriented towards high-risk industries where teams and crews are exposed to hazardous situations. We work to help improve team performance. However, many of the principles we follow also have the potential to help other business types, such as startups, early growth companies, and larger enterprise organizations, particularly if they deal with uncertainty and the need for leadership, decision-making, and adaptability. V-Speed recombines elements of High-Reliability theory with operational execution and risk management strategies. If you deal with high-tempo operations and need help with decision-making under conditions of uncertainty and if you want higher performance for your teams and company, sign up for our newsletter below.