How to operate in 'Netscape time'
- By Dan Verton
- Apr 17, 2000
Few would argue that the government must become leaner, lighter and more
agile to meet the challenges of the Information Age. Dwindling resources
and the high-speed nature of electronic business demand that federal agencies
adopt industry's most effective tactics.
But some argue that, on the whole, agencies are incapable of mustering
the agility and leadership that are necessary to stay on top in today's
Internet world. Adopting industry's best practices can become an excuse
for agencies to hand over their entire information technology enterprise
Not true. That's the lesson you will learn from reading David H. Freedman's
"Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines."
As a former Marine officer, I was a little skeptical about a book written
by a technology journalist that claimed to be about Marine Corps leadership
principles. I questioned how anybody who is not intimately familiar with
what it takes to earn the title "Marine" could effectively communicate to
business leaders what Marine Corps leadership is all about.
Freedman's book removed any doubt from my mind. Through a series of
real-world examples of Marines in action, Freedman communicates to government
and industry leaders what the Marines have known for 224 years: Leadership
counts at every level of an organization, particularly in a world of rapid
change and unpredictability.
But why read a book about the Marine Corps? Let's face it, nobody wants
the world to be run like the military. But when it comes to learning how
to get your managers to move fast, change on the fly and inspire their employees,
the Marines are the government's experts in residence.
Readers of Freedman's book get the benefit of a foreword by former Commandant
of the Marine Corps Gen. Charles C. Krulak, who introduces the Marines'
overall leadership methodology. But the real advantage of Freedman's approach
comes from his decision to travel with real Marines during exercises and
observe how they take a classic hierarchical organization and turn it into
a highly flexible force capable of operating in what Freedman calls "Netscape
Freedman, who observed a Marine Expeditionary Unit in action aboard
USS Tarawa, does a superb job of outlining the Marines' rapid planning cycle.
"The Marines consider indecisiveness a fatal flaw," Freedman writes. "Fast
and bold is where it's at."
But they "do not advocate shoot-from-the-hip decision-making," he cautions.
"Marine decision-makers not only allow disagreement but practically demand
that every member of the staff try to shoot holes in the decision, taking
yet another opportunity to catch something that everyone has missed."
The overall lesson: Aim for the 70 percent solution, Freedman writes.
"When time is of the essence, Marines act as soon as they have a plan with
a good chance of working." But once the plan is agreed to, all Marines put
100 percent of their effort behind achieving its objectives.
But what is it about the Marines from an organizational standpoint that
makes them different? According to Freedman, it is their "capability-based"
focus that distinguishes them. "They have resisted the temptation to become
especially relevant to a particular set of competitors in a particular environment,"
Freedman writes, "and thus they have avoided the risk of becoming less relevant
In practical terms, this means that the Marine Corps organizes to the
task at hand and concentrates on four primary competencies: impact, speed,
versatility and proficiency with complex situations. But two of these — speed and proficiency with complexity — are of particular relevance to today's
business environment, according to Freedman. "It's getting harder and harder
to envision a company that can achieve and sustain success without staking
out these two competencies."
As a real-word industry example, Freedman offers the example of former
Marine Robert Lutz. Lutz relied on a 70 percent solution as his "signature
strategy" while a corporate officer, first with Ford Motor Co. of Europe
and later with Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler), according to Freedman. Lutz
is credited with pushing production of bold new designs that received both
high praise and harsh criticism.
Other examples include Federal Express, run by former Marine Fred Smith;
former Marine Capt. Dan Caulfield's consulting firm, which encourages decision-making
at the lowest levels; and even Netscape Communications Corp., which was
founded by former Marine James Clark, who said his company became too enamored
of its flagship product to realize that the company's value had shifted
away from its product to its Web site.
These are just a few of the many lessons that Freedman
managed to glean from his observation of Marines in action. And though I
was nearly convinced that the leadership lessons that I and countless others
had been taught would remain lost to the captains of industry, Freedman's
uncanny ability to grasp the "essence" of Marine leadership convinces me
While I was reading "Corps Business," I was reminded of a saying that
would go a long way toward helping federal business managers understand
the essence of their challenge: "No plan survives contact with the enemy."
But once that plan goes awry, the only thing that will pull you and your
organization out of it is leadership at every level. Freedman's book can
tell you how to create that environment and how to find the essence.