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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Bringing Military Decision Strategies to Family Business

by Shel Horowitz

Do military models apply to business decision making? Major John Smolenski, in charge of recruiting medical personnel for the Massachusetts Army National Guard, says they do indeed.

Citing ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu's advice to "know the enemy, know the terrain, and know yourself," Smolenski outlined the seven steps the military uses to reach a decision, often under pressure (i.e., rapidly changing battlefield conditions requiring a near-immediate response). "The concept is to come up with a sound plan, under stress, and articulate it to your subordinates. If you have a good plan, you win, if you have a bad plan, you lose - in the military, in business, and in life."

The seven steps:

  • Receive the mission
  • Analyze it
  • Develop a course of action
  • Analyze the proposal
  • Compare it with other actions
  • Give the order

If it feels difficult to analyze the mission, just get started. "Someone has to start. Walk up to the acetate map and draw all over it." Know the difference between facts and assumptions - and how to convert assumptions into facts, through research in the business sector, reconnaissance in the military. Also know the difference between constraints (for instance, you do not have adequate staffing or technology) and limitations (instructions not to do something - not because you don't have the capability, but for instance, because someone else has already been assigned that territory).

Recognize that their may be other orders implied in the order you receive. If you are ordered to move troops across an unbridged river, the command to solve the problem of getting across - by building a bridge, for instance - is implicit.

Know the intent, two levels up. If you know your boss's boss's thinking, you may be able to seize opportunities to move the agenda forward. and likewise, if you get your subordinates to buy in, your chances of success are greater. "If every subordinate unit isn't supporting the effort," your mission will be severely set back, possibly doomed. Know the pieces where you're weak, and build more time into those pieces to overcome obstacles. And as you're building leadership among subordinates, learn how to delegate.

When you have notice of actions that will affect the people under you, give them warning. In the military, often, the first order is a notice that further orders are coming. and when you receive or give a warning, do reverse-planning to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be.

Military planning, of course, also entails predicting the opposition: an enemy in the battlefield, a competitor in the business arena. " Plan against both the most probable and the most dangerous course of action" by your competitors. "Branch off and do sequential plans for these contingencies. Continuously update your intelligence on the competition."

Know not only your competitor's position, strengths, and weaknesses, but your own. In battle, "you need to know who's on your left, right, front, behind, and up."

Are these lessons transferable to the civilian sector? "75% of Fortune 500 CEOs are prior service military."

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