Checklists Build Teamwork and Improve Execution


Can Rapid Adaptability and Strategic Alignment Co-exist?

In today’s turbulent business environments, every leader should be concerned about how well his or her organization executes and how well it adapts to change. Execution has been on the list of top concerns of CEOs for years now. But the turbulent business environments of the past few years underscore the necessity for rapid adaptability and strategic alignment to survive and prosper in the new economy.

What’s the secret to executing in turbulent business environments and propelling an organization to the next level? There are many attributes that contribute to an organization’s success. But there is an often forgotten element that has gained increasing attention in the past few years. It may come as a surprise, but a powerful means to achieving success is to infuse your organization with military leadership experience. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates just how important it is to have leaders with experiences that only military officers have.

How Checklists Can Improve Execution Strategy

In 2009, the value of military leadership experience in turbulent business environments was further punctuated by London Business School professor Donald Sull in his book The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World. Sull, who adapts military tactical theory to business management practices, asserts that turbulence will likely continue to be a quality that the global economy will experience for a long time. For Sull, it is rapid adaptation and execution toward small gains that lead to success, as in current U.S. Marine Corps tactical doctrine and in the tactical improvements for fighter pilots that emerged after the Korean War. The ability to debrief is highlighted as a core competency in adaptive organizations, just like in the U.S. military. But it is the ability to translate strategy into action, supported by the ability to debrief and learn from doing, that is the secret to executing and winning in turbulent business environments. Checklists are at the heart of military execution when stakes are high due to the turbulent business environment.

Team Performance Increases When a Good Strategy is in Place

For anyone that is still skeptical about the value of military leadership experience, Dan Senor and Saul Singer make an even more compelling argument for its value in their 2009 release Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. Although the authors attribute Israel’s phenomenal success to several factors, including a mission objective orientation and nonattributive debriefing, one of the most significant is that Israeli companies actively recruit individuals with military leadership experience. The authors scold American business leaders for their illiteracy regarding military resumes and their failure to recognize the value of military leadership experience in their companies. “Given all this battlefield entrepreneurial experience,” write the authors, “the vets coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan wars are better prepared than ever for the business world, whether building start-ups or helping lead larger companies through the current turbulent period.” These vets are highly skilled at executing a plan which directly leads to increased team performance.

A March 2010 Fortune Magazine article, “Battle-Tested: How a Decade of War Has Created a New Generation of Elite Business Leaders” further underscored the value that junior military officers (JMO’s) bring to businesses. The author Brian O’Keefe highlights the efforts of many large American companies such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, State Farm, AT&T, Bank of America, Merck and GE to recruit military leaders for their ability to listen, make decisions in ambiguous situations and execute – the hallmarks of military leadership.

This execution strategy begins with the checklist. Every business in America can benefit from the experience gained from those serving as officers in the U.S. military. These officers possess abilities to plan and set goals, communicate, and motivate others that no business school can teach. They have practiced and honed their decision-making skills in life and death situations. In all, they provide a rich resource that is not inexhaustible. Companies that stake a claim on this rare commodity and actively recruit it will certainly position themselves to execute in the turbulent future ahead.

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