Management Analogies

James Governor forwarded me a blog entry called Management by Marching Around which reviews a book called “No Yelling: The 9 Secrets of Marine Corps Leadership You Must Know to Win in Business“.  No doubt James thought I would be amused because of the relationship to the title of my own blog.  But reading the entry got me thinking about military analogies in business. 

When people invoke military analogies for leadership in business, they usually project a structure of command and control.  For example, decisions are made on high by people who are nowhere near the battlefield and communicated down to the line soldiers.  Sergeants drill conformity and uniformity into soldiers so that they can instantly respond to instructions and resist the temptation to use their own intuition.  Images of vast numbers of men operating lock-step come to mind. 

Why are these analogies so prevalent?  With the rise of very large businesses in the industrial age, organizations only had two other large institutions to compare themselves against: the Church and the Military.  Both were very structured and hierarchical.  Thomas Malone, in The Future of Work, claims that the reason is that the cost of communication was so high: 

“When the only means of communication is face-to-face conversation, egalitarian decision making among a large number of people usually just takes too long.”

High cost of communications also meant that companies tended to be centralized in one location (i.e. the military headquarters).  However, phones, airplanes, and the Internet have dramatically lowered the cost of communications.  As a result, organizations have become networked and more distributed.  Management methodologies and analogies have to keep up.  As I said in my inaugural post,

“Manage by walking around worked well when companies tended to be centralized in one campus-style environment.  Unfortunately, modern organizations have become decentralized with multiple locations, often spread throughout the world.  […] The concept of manage by walking around does not scale well to manage by flying around.”

Interestingly, the military itself seems to be going through the same transformation.  One of the most popular US DOD military doctrines is called network-centric warfare (NCW) or operations (NCO).  NCW/NCO recognizes that information is localized to many separate geographically dispersed locations and attempts to create an interactive network that permits increased information sharing, high amounts of collaboration, and shared best practices.  In fact, the concept of a decentralized military has become so prevelant that its now popular to talk about semi-autonomous fighting units and splinter cells.

These concepts are amazingly similar to those used by strategy-focused organizations trying to improve their performance by increasing alignment. 

So, go ahead.  Use military analogies for business again.  Just realize that there’s more to it than The Art of War.

5 Responses to Management Analogies

  1. Jonathan,
    Good point. If one is to rely on military methods, at least let them be up to date ones.

    I try to avoid war metaphors in business conversation. Luckily I’m not in the trenches, and I have no desire to inflict wounds on my competition.

    That said, I understand we wear the same uniform, If you are ever in Walldorf, please look me up.

  2. Robert E says:

    There is usually a very important missing piece when talking about the command and control structure. The military also spends a certain amount of effort on motivating soldiers. The units that enjoy the largest popularity are usually those with the highest motivation, say Marines in contrast to the National Guard.
    In addition to motivating soldiers to believe in the mission, command has to clearly communicate the intent of what needs to be accomplished. That way, in a fast-changing situation, individual units can adjust their own actions to reach what needed to be accomplished, even if other units have failed.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Excellent point Robert. The Armed Forces spend a lot of time on alignment. My sense is that they got away from this in the 90s which explained the declining popularity but are clearly back again.

  4. GC says:

    War metaphors have been used in business for some time now. Like ‘marketing campaign’ and ‘blitz’.

    Once, I saw some strategy maps including ‘strategic thrusts’. I thought it is odd given that they are in education.

    But then again, organizations use what they are comfortable with.

  5. Interestingly enough, the “No Yelling” book *isn’t* about bunches of people marching in lockstep in the way that first popped into your head. It’s actually more about managing by principles and values, and enabling distributed decision making and accountability.

    There is an emphasis on “don’t decide about situations you don’t understand if you can help it” – and an encouragement to consult with the people closest to the real data and get their recommendations so you don’t make ignorant decisions.

    I know what you’re saying, but No Yelling certainly reinforced for me that the military model is not a lemming culture.

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