How to operate in 'Netscape time'

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

to industry.

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

time."

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

to others."

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

otherwise.

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.

WRITE US

Send your comments on this review to letters@fcw.com

BY Dan Verton
Apr. 17, 2000

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