How the Military Informs Learning

In 1989, James Murphy had an epiphany behind the controls of an F-15 fighter jet above Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base. “How did I, a guy like me, Jim Murphy, get in this cockpit?” he asked himself. “How are all the people all around me … so aligned around mission outcome, flawless execution and mission accomplishment?” The answer, he said, was in the training.

To Murphy, a salesman-turned-fighter pilot, the processes used in combat preparation and planning translated directly to the workforce. In 1996 he started Afterburner Inc., a corporate team building firm that has trained people ranging from Home Depot store managers and merchandisers to the New York Giants, who won the Super Bowl later that season. His book, “Courage to Execute,” details the methods elite military units use and how they can help business leaders achieve goals, develop teams and improve performance.

What is the “courage to execute,” and how can the military serve as an example for the civilian workplace?

Murphy: Having the courage to execute is having an organization and leaders that can plan the future and hold people accountable to getting there. … Do an organization’s leaders have the courage to execute and do the hard things it takes to create a high-performing team? Does your selection and training really align to what you’re asking your organization to do based on the environment you’re executing in? [The military] has a very demanding environment, so certainly it’s OK to have a demanding selection and training criteria. In the business world, we don’t always see that. Some companies require very demanding processes, people and decision-making, but they’re not assessing and training for those skills and attributes.

In the book you write that “complexity is the mortal enemy of good execution, and our world is nothing if not increasingly complex.” What are some basic things CLOs can do to avoid adding complexity when trying to train their employees on a new procedure or long-term strategy?

Murphy: One of the things we learn in the military is that simplicity combats complexity. Companies have created planning processes that are way too complex, require too many layers of reporting, and they may have hierarchies that are too complex; they might even be creating solutions for customers that are too complex. One of the things that we learned in the work we did with the military and the work that we’re now doing with business is there’s a process to combat complexity, and it’s almost the same process to develop leaders.

What is that process?

Murphy: When we break the plan down into short-term timelines, we’re planning, we’re briefing, we’re executing and right away we’re debriefing. The whole purpose of the debrief is to make adjustments … then we’re planning again based on those lessons learned, and we’re planning and executing and debriefing again — more adjustments. We’re always refining and continually improving.

How can organized mission planning help business leaders and their employees develop confidence in their goals and execution?

Murphy: Confidence leads to courage, and courage leads to a bias to action. This planning process gives people that courage regardless of the situation. … No matter how complex the environment is, when everybody in their organization is doing this, the organization stays at the same rate of competitive change in their complex environment or slightly ahead of it. And you win.

Kate Everson is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at keverson@CLOmedia.com.

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