Business boot camp: what the armed services can teach industry

Tim Tyler, Head of Defence Development
01 September 2017
Image of military men climbing over a wooden structure.
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Tim Tyler joined the Army in 1972 and studied Engineering at Cambridge. He retired from military service in 2008 as a Major General. He held senior military roles in business planning, HR and procurement. Since 2008 he has worked in business development and strategy. There's a lot that industry can learn from the armed forces approach, he says.

1. Joint training leads to mutual understanding

Our servicemen and women go through the same training together, which presents a huge advantage over industry. There are differences between the initial individual training provided by the three services – Royal Navy, Army and RAF – as well as the specialisations within them, but all three train together and joint individual training is provided for more senior staff which covers the three services.

This is important in managing internal ‘conflict’ when people disagree or when things don’t go to plan – people know each other well and have a clear understanding of each other's businesses. The application of this in the business world is that if employees train or work closely with key external stakeholders on a regular basis then it can only enhance mutual understanding of roles.

2. No plan survives first contact with the enemy

A key element of military doctrine is about dealing with that old and wise saying that ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’. What that means is that however brilliant a plan is, inevitably things will never go precisely as expected. This is, however, not an excuse for not planning! It is about recognising that an integral part of the planning process has a very clear focus on contingency planning and about teaching people to look out for and respond to the unexpected. A lot more emphasis could be placed on planning for the unexpected.

3. On having a shared sense of destiny

Perhaps this is most clearly seen in the Royal Navy where every member of the crew, whether weapon operator, navigator, engineer, supply specialist, cook or any other specialisation is wholly committed to the ship. The success of the mission is shared and so are the risks – including the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice. The more an organisation can foster a sense of a shared destiny, the more its employees will be committed to the cause.

4. ‘Requirement’ is an overused word

In any resource-based decision there are rarely ‘diamond hard’ requirements but there is always a priority list of possibilities – some of which will fall below the affordability line. This is true in military life, but there is often a penalty in taking ‘one more' thing, often in terms of time and flexibility as well as cost.

Think of this as packing your rucksack before a mission: some items are clearly more important than others and there is limited room. Heavier items might weigh you down. In business, you are constantly faced with a set of possibilities and careful assessment must take place to judge which options to pursue.

5. Client and outsourcer – there is no clear dividing line

This issue has tested the military for generations. Wellington’s campaigns were dependent on a host of outsourced services. The British performance in the Crimean War was severely limited by a failure to understand the logistic needs and the lack of local resources to meet them. In both World Wars, UK industry was so committed to manufacturing that the only way the military could be sustained was to develop very large support services – which now form a smaller proportion of today’s Armed Forces as industry has increasingly taken them on.

Organisations can only prosper if their suppliers and their clients do as well – helping one another achieve this is crucial.



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