Verge Reviews

As a US Navy SEAL, it took me almost 15 years of studying small-unit tactics to understand that the thousands of pages of text and centuries of best practices and lessons learned, from the Greeks to the Romans to Napoleon, Clausewitz and Jomini, and in the East from Khan to the Samurai, all could be resolved to three simple rules:

  1. Don’t bunch up. If you can conceive of a danger zone, don’t put all your people in it at once. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In the business world, this is tantamount to diversification.
  2. Don’t cross open areas without the threat of covering fire. When you are on the move, you are vulnerable. Someone has to be covering your back if something goes wrong. In other words, have a contingency plan and make it a good one. Practice it.
  3. Make contact with the enemy with the smallest element possible. Now, contact doesn’t always mean a gun fight. In fact, the preferred form of contact with the enemy is visual contact: you see him, but he doesn’t see you. You gather vital information about him and his position, but he can’t do the same about you. If you are a team of eight, let’s say, this rule holds that only two or four of your eight people should make contact with the enemy. Why? So that the others can maneuver based on the information the small group in contact is able to gather. Through maneuver, you put yourself in a position of advantage with relation to your opponent. This last rule also rounds back into the first; because you are making contact with the smallest element, you avoid bunching up. A virtuous cycle, of sorts.

I’m still occasionally asked to go back to my old alma mater (the SEAL Teams that is) and teach a course on small-unit tactics, which I accept with relish. In fact, I see this not only as an honor but as an obligation: the other half of the privilege of service is the obligation to pass on what my generation learned, sometimes the hard way, in the combat. But at the start of the day I remind the operators that everything I’m about to say can be resolved to these three simple rules, and that if they keep these rules in mind before walking out the door to execute a dangerous mission, their chances of succeeding in what is arguably one of the most complex environments imaginable—combat—increase.

I also point out that when innovating, when devising new tactics, techniques, and procedures to enhance their performance in complex environments, to keep these rules in mind. Does the new tactic break one of those simple rules? If so, they might want to rethink their innovation.

Can we use our knowledge of complexity to resolve the thousands upon thousands of pages of text and decades of best practices and lessons learned in the business world down into a few simple rules? It would be tempting to say “yes” and advertise our new MBA program in the next breath, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Context matters—a lot—and a simple rules strategy that works in one context might not work as well, or at all, in the next. I can say, however, that some general practices make sense in any environment, and that practicing them until they are habit can and does aid in producing success.

For instance, consider reviewing your plans and strategies more often than you currently do. The world is changing, and your grand plans have to change with it, period. Secondly, approach your conclusions with real humility. Your excellent idea that is working like gang-busters today might not work so well tomorrow. You can readily go from good to great to an afterthought in the time it takes to say “Blockbuster,” particularly if you think your point of view is the only worthwhile point of view, or if you believe the information you possess about the competitive environment is the only information available. Daniel Kahneman refers to this collection of biases as WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is. And he cites it as the principal source of our overconfidence. I agree. Wholeheartedly. Though I might change “overconfidence” to “arrogance.”

Third, learn not only to tolerate failure but to see it as an opportunity to learn and to add to your base of knowledge, skills, and abilities. And lastly, explore. Go on the hunt for new ways of thinking and acting that can and will aid you in creating an ever-increasing fit between you and your organization on the one hand, and the complex, competitive market you find yourself in on the other. Design thinkers understand this rule well: explore the space, test, learn, iterate, grow. Fail fast, fail early, fail often if you have to, but don’t fail big. (Incidentally, nature follows a similar strategy of exploiting what works and exploring for and testing new approaches that might work in the future to create an ever-increasing fit between the organism and its environment.)

That last rule is important for another reason because it implies that if you go exploring you might end up breaking one of those simple rules I mentioned. But with a designer’s mindset, you break them in a small way and in a safe place. This practice allows you to minimize risk, learn, and eventually reap the rewards of new and innovative ways of thinking and acting. Thus, I add to my simple-rules strategy Rule Number 4 that I left out above: Don’t be afraid to break the rules, but break them for a reason and not out of ignorance.

Simple Rules Strategies can prove to be powerful performance enhancers. Like our cultural and organizational narratives, they can take us to new heights, but they can also limit what is imaginable and, ultimately, what is achievable. To accentuate the pluses, however, you have to be willing to at least bend a few rules if not break them outright. What are your simple rules?